Mexican ocellated turkey

Mexican ocellated turkey

There are all kinds of cool food related anthropological/archaeological discoveries being made these days. This is exciting. Turkey is one of the few domesticated animals that actually originated in North America. Marc Forgione notwithstanding, he won The Next Iron Chef competition by preparing a Thanksgiving dinner with no turkey. He claimed that turkey was not served at the first Thanksgiving. He is virtually 100% wrong, but a lie intrigued the judges and he won. As an anthropologist myself, I know Forgione and the judges aren’t and if any of them actually researched the issue, they would know that it is almost certain that turkey was on the menu. Read more at Turkey at the first Thanksgiving and Next Iron Chef.

Hopefully, Marc Forgione won’t argue with the researchers at the University of Florida on this one. But Thanksgiving is right around

North American wild turkey

North American wild turkey

the corner, so what better time to write about Mexican domesticated turkey?

There are only two turkey species in the world, the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), divided into five distinct subspecies, and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). The ocellated turkey lives mainly in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. The North American wild turkey is the one found in many parts of the United States, the one served at the first Thanksgiving. And all domesticated turkey found today throughout the world originated from the North American wild turkey, as it was the species that Europeans brought back to Europe. So, the turkey you eat at Thanksgiving this year is a variant of a North American wild turkey.

El Mirador

El Mirador

North American wild turkey bones from over 2000 years ago were discovered at a Mayan ceremonial site in Guatemala. Guatemala is far out of the range of this turkey, and it appears they were imported by the Mayans from farmers in central Mexico, quite a distance away, via the trade routes operating at that time. The fact that these bones do not belong to the Mexican ocellated turkey is amazing and evidence that the North American wild turkey had been domesticated and made its way to Mexico far earlier than anyone imagined. From there, it went further south to the Mayans in Guatemala. The Mayans were not known for raising domesticated animals.

There are lots of questions yet to be answered. It appears these turkeys were used ceremonially. Of course, that is because they were found in conjunction with ceremonial structures. That doesn’t mean they weren’t also eaten by regular people. We know they were imported, but we still don’t know if they were imported, then killed and sacrificed, or imported and formed breeding stock for local farmers or priests. Answering one question always leads to 100 more. Pretty cool.

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4 Comments on Ancient Maya used Mexican domesticated turkey over 2000 years ago

  1. Lynn says:

    Gobble gobble

  2. The Gould’s wild turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana), like the Osceola, has a very limited range. It is only found in an elongated region that stretches through parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and into northern Mexico. Its population is much more abundant in northern Mexico than in its U.S. region.

  3. Adi says:

    We call this wild turkey “guajolote” in México, a word in náhuatl, an indigenous language. Regards!

  4. Virgil says:

    Thank you for your comment, Adi. Is the guajolote used for food?

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