The turkey on your Thanksgiving table is older than you think

Science | AAAS | 11/21/2018 | Staff
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If you celebrate Thanksgiving, you’re taking part in a culinary tradition that traces back thousands—not hundreds—of years. Turkeys served as ceremonial centerpieces for Mayan rulers as early as 350 B.C.E., according to archaeologist Erin Thornton at Washington State University in Pullman.

Thornton and her mentor, Kitty Emery, curator of environmental archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, have been shining a light on the early domestication of turkeys for more than a decade. Their work was the first to reveal that Mayans raised and managed wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)—the same species as the Butterball on your table—more than 2300 years ago, making them the first vertebrates to be domesticated on the North American continent.

Thornton - Science - Archaeologists - Evidence - Domestication

Thornton spoke with Science about how archaeologists look for evidence of early domestication in these birds and what they meant for the ancient civilizations that reared them. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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Q: What got you interested in turkeys?

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A: In grad school I was working at a site called El Mirador in northern Guatemala. It’s famous for being one of the earliest, biggest Maya cities. I was studying animal bones found at a site called the Jaguar Paw Temple. I found turkeys, and some of them looked like Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey, which is found throughout the eastern U.S., the American Southwest, and down into much of Mexico. The bones did not belong to the ocellated turkey [M. ocellate], which is native to the Mayan region. My adviser assumed I must have made a mistake. But eventually through genetic evidence we proved they were indeed wild turkeys.

Q: How did these wild turkeys get to Guatemala?

A: It is difficult to say. They were very likely reared on-site rather...
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