Ancient Butterball

The star of Thanksgiving was domesticated by Mayans 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

By | November 21, 2012

Wikimedia, David PerezIn a Mayan archeological site in Guatemala, researchers found remains of domesticated Turkey dating to between 300 B.C. and 100 A.D., according to a study published earlier this year (August 8) in PLOS ONE. The results are surprising because Mayans weren’t known for domesticating animals—just plants—and because it means the domestic turkey is 1,000 years older than previously thought.

“We might have gotten the timing of the introduction of this species to the ancient Maya wrong by a significant chunk of time,” lead author Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a press release. This is significant because “plant and animal domestication suggests a much more complex relationship between humans and the environment—you’re intentionally modifying it and controlling it,” she added.

Using DNA sequencing and comparisons of turkey bone structure, the researchers determined that the fossil belonged to the Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, a turkey that is native to central and northern Mexico—where all domesticated turkeys originated. 

Moreover, the remains of the Mexican turkey was found in a ceremonial site containing large complexes of temples, which suggests that the turkey may have been at the center of an elite sacrifice, meal, or feast.

“This study is extremely significant,” Florida State University anthropology professor emeritus Mary Pohl said in the statement. “I think it opens up a whole new perspective on the Maya and animal domestication.”

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Avatar of: animalfriend


Posts: 1

November 26, 2012

I urge people who want to learn about, and appreciate, turkeys more deeply to read my book MORE THAN A MEAL: THE TURKEY IN HISTORY, MYTH, RITUAL, AND REALITY (Lantern Books, 2001). My book is a goldmine of information and analysis of turkeys as individuals and as social, familial & ecological beings and in their relationship with human beings including Native American, British and European cultures.

MORE THAN A MEAL contains fascinating accounts of wild turkeys written by Europeans in the Americas in the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. It describes the hundreds of miles turkeys often were forced to walk to slaughter, in England and in the United States, herded by “drovers,” into the 1930s. It includes my personal experiences with our sanctuary turkeys bred for the meat industry, a chapter on the history and significance of the annual Presidental “Pardoning” Ceremony in the White House, and much more, including a discussion of Joe Hutto’s book, Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season With the Wild Turkey (1995).

MORE THAN A MEAL includes an insightful chapter on “The Mind and Behavior of Turkeys” and why the turkey became the carnivalesque figure of torment and ridicule opposite the piety of Thanksgiving in America.

MORE THAN A MEAL is available in print and is also posted on our Website page at

Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.

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