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Wild turkeys

Wild turkeys

Turkeys evolved from earlier birds. The ancestors of the turkey evolved about 100 million years ago, from the dinosaurs that were alive at that time. By about 11 million years ago, turkeys had evolved to be different from pheasants. Turkeys are related to chickens, but wild chickens lived mainly in East Asia, while wild turkeys lived in North America and Central America.

Like chickens, turkeys are mainly running birds that can only fly a little bit. Turkeys started out small, like pheasants, but at some point they migrated south to Central America, where there were no animals that hunted turkeys. It was so safe and peaceful that turkeys could grow bigger and bigger.

Olmec clay image of a turkey

Olmec clay image of a turkey, about 700 BC (Thanks to Steffan Ziegler)

Around 800 BC, Olmec farmers in what is now southern Mexico domesticated turkeys, which they called “huexolotl”. Soon Olmec people were eating a lot of turkey meat and turkey eggs. Olmec people also used turkey feathers to make beautiful feather capes and feather necklaces. Soon the Olmecs’ neighbors, like the Maya, also began to breed turkeys and eat them. Then maybe around 200 BC, Pueblo farmers in what is now Arizona and New Mexico independently domesticated a slightly different kind of turkey. Again, the Pueblo people used turkeys mainly to make capes and blankets from their feathers. They also used turkey bones as musical instruments and tools. Further east, the Mississippians also ate turkeys, but they hunted wild turkeys with bows and arrows instead of raising turkeys on farms. (Some archaeologists think they might have raised turkeys too.)

Aztec feather shield (ca. 1520 AD), now in Vienna

Aztec feather shield (ca. 1520 AD), now in Vienna

By 1100 AD, the Pueblo people began to also use turkeys as an important source of meat and eggs, like their Aztec neighbors to the south in Mexico.

Around 1500 AD, the first Spanish invaders came to the Aztec empire in Mexico and found turkeys there. They brought some turkeys back to Spain, and from Spain some turkeys came to other parts of Europe, where people thought of turkeys as an expensive luxury food for rich people. That’s why we eat turkeys on special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas (even though turkeys aren’t really expensive anymore).

When English invaders first came to eastern North America in the 1500s AD and saw turkeys, they thought turkeys were the same as a related bird that did come from the country Turkey, so they called these birds turkeys. Even when English scientists finally realized that American turkeys were a different type of bird, the name stuck.

Learn by doing: a project with feathers
More about Central American food

Bibliography and further reading about turkeys:

Chicks & Chickens, by Gail Gibbons (2003). Explains where chickens come from, and what they eat, and so on. For younger kids.

A Chicken in Every Pot: Global Recipes for the World’s Most Popular Bird, by Kate Heyhoe (2003). Includes a brief history, and lots of recipes for chicken.

Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal, by Margaret Visser (1999). Background on what you eat, including a chapter on chicken.

Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, by Don and Patricia Brothwell (1998). Pretty specialized, but the book tells you where foods came from, and how they got to other places, and what people ate in antiquity. Not just Europe, either!

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