Turkeys Were Domesticated Not For Meat, But For Ancient Mesoamerican Ceremonies

The birds were not prized for their meat in pre-Columbian times, but rather for their ritual significance. Tory Kallman/Shutterstock

A staple for many a Thanksgiving and Christmas lunch, the turkey is now synonymous with the holiday season and roast dinners.

But this wasn’t always the case. Now archaeologists have uncovered the earliest origins of the all-American domestic turkey in Mexico, finding that these early birds were not prized for their tasty meat, but rather traded for their cultural significance in rituals and sacrifice.


“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies; turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role,” explained Dr Aurélie Manin, who led the study published in Royal Society Open Science.

The team of researchers studied the bones of 55 turkeys collected from Mesoamerica – which spans an area from central Mexico to northern Costa Rica – that dated to between 300 BCE and 1500 CE.

Over this time span, this part of the New World was dominated by pre-Columbian societies like the Aztecs and Mayans, and saw the development of complex cultures and rituals. The researchers suspect that the turkeys likely played a central role in this because the bird remains come not from the middens of domestic trash, but from temples and religious sites where they appear to have been sacrificed and buried.

This also matches up with the fact that the growth of the turkey industry did not correlate with the growth of the human population, as would be expected if they were being farmed for food. It also seems that throughout the region there was a thriving live turkey trade along Mesoamerican trade routes, as the bones were found far from the bird’s native range.


Curiously, some of the bones that the researchers found belonged not to the North American turkey, but instead to the ocellated turkey. Yet despite having super-fancy iridescent feathers, and clearly living in the same area as its drabber cousin, for some reason, the Mesoamericans decided not to domesticate the ocellated species and focused instead on the North American variety.

Turkeys are actually a good animal to study when looking into the development of cultures and societies in the New World. This is because unlike what was going on in the Levant, people living in the Americas only domesticated a handful of animals.

“Even though humans in this part of the word had been practicing agriculture for around 10,000 years, the turkey was the first animal, other than the dog, people in Mesoamerica started to take under their control,” said senior author Dr Camilla Speller. This is likely due to the large birds' relatively chilled nature, coupled with the fact they were probably drawn to human settlements looking for scraps.


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