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From the President: Talking Turkey Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by Jane C. Waldbaum

Food for thought this Thanksgiving

During the holiday season, most people's thoughts naturally turn to food. As an archaeologist, however, I am almost as interested in the origins of our feasts as I am in partaking of them. And the turkey, which may well appear on your own festive dinner table, has a fascinating archaeological and zoological past.

The turkey originated in North America. Ice Age turkey bones have been found from Florida to New Mexico. A.W. Schorger, who wrote the standard work The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication in 1966, suggests that turkeys were domesticated in Mexico some time between 200 B.C. and A.D. 700 and had spread through Central America and parts of South America by the time of the Spanish conquest. A second, apparently independent area of domestication is in the American Southwest around A.D. 200 in the Mogollon culture of New Mexico and A.D. 400 in the Anasazi of Arizona.

Turkeys appear in the artwork of many ancient cultures. The Maya painted or modeled turkeys--distinguished by the wattle falling down the front of the face and by bumps on the head—on many vases from around A.D. 250 to 800, notes University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone. "For the Maya," she adds, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." They even made turkey-shaped tamales! And in the Southwest, the birds appear as painted designs on Mimbres pottery a thousand years ago.

The Spanish conquistadors, including Cortés (1519), were greeted by the local people with plenty of turkey and other delicacies. Ambassadors from the Aztec ruler Montezuma are said to have presented Cortés with six golden turkeys (no doubt soon melted down!). The Spanish must have liked what they tasted, because they shipped turkeys back to Spain as early as 1511. From there the turkey spread rapidly through western Europe and, in a delicious twist, English, French, and Dutch colonists brought this bird back to eastern North America in the early seventeenth century, where it interbred with wild turkeys to become the ancestor of the modern holiday gobbler. The Pilgrims, who, according to the apocryphal story, ate wild turkey at the first Thanksgiving, would likely have been familiar with the domestic variety before leaving Europe.

Jean Hudson, a zooarchaeologist at UW-Milwaukee, says she studies animal remains "to better understand past human behaviors and beliefs." As she sees it, the story of the peripatetic turkey is a wonderful example of "how complex the relationship between humans and animals can be." As we sit down to our holiday feasts, let us remember the remarkable story of what Ben Franklin described, in a letter to his daughter, as a "respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America." Pass the drumstick!

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Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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