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The Taming of the Turkey

August 2012


MiradorGobble, gobble. Turkey bones found beneath the Jaguar Paw Temple in Guatemala (main image) belong not to the native ocellated turkey (lower right) but to the Mexican turkey (upper left).
Credit: (temple) Museum of Peoples and Cultures/Brigham Young U.; (turkey, left) Mongo/Wikipedia; (turkey, right) George Harrison/USFWS

Their bones were buried deep within the Jaguar Paw Temple in the ancient Maya city of El Mirador, Guatemala. Perhaps ritually sacrificed, possibly eaten, seven turkeys met their untimely ends more than 2000 years ago and more than 400 miles from their native range in Central Mexico. Now, in addition to providing clues about ancient Maya culture and trade, their skeletons may help resolve another mystery: When were the turkeys we eat today first domesticated?

Compared to the bald eagle, wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1784, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.” By Franklin’s era, archaeologists speculate that Native Americans had been domesticating turkeys for more than 1500 years. One established center of turkey domestication was central Mexico, where the bones of Meleagris gallopavo—ancestors of the turkeys we eat today—have been found from as early as about 800 B.C.E. alongside ancient turkey pens and fossilized poop containing traces of corn, suggesting the birds were kept and fed. Early European explorers took Mexican turkeys back to Europe, starting a worldwide turkey craze. But long before Mexican turkeys became a staple of Christmas feasts, they were being traded with the Maya in Central America. Mexican turkeys were originally thought to have been introduced to the Maya after the Maya “collapse” around 1000 C.E. However, the turkey bones at Jaguar Paw Temple date to roughly 1000 years before that, during the rise of Maya society. How did they get there?

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