Thursday, November 23, 2017
This week Thanksgiving tables across the nation will be laden with that most American of birds, the turkey. But while certain turkeys are native to this country, the holiday bird commonly eaten today is typically American in a way many people don't suspect -- it's descended from immigrants.
Another study of bones, fossilized excrement and DNA from dozens of archaeological sites concludes that a different turkey lineage was domesticated separately in the American Southwest at approximately the same time.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World in the 15th century, the birds were in wide domestic use and were being consumed in large quantities by humans and beasts alike. "The Spanish encountered them very early on when they came to the Americas," Speller explains. "Historic accounts describe Montezuma's menagerie, which contained hundreds of raptors that were fed on turkeys. Turkeys would have been very prevalent at the time of contact, in marketplaces and on village farms." The Spanish liked what they saw and presumably enjoyed what they tasted -- Speller says the first turkeys were shipped to Europe sometime around the year 1500, and their Old World arrival was a smashing success. "Certainly turkeys spread very rapidly," she says. "In about a hundred years we can see them spread throughout Europe."
That means by the time of Plymoth's 1621 Thanksgiving feast, turkeys had been familiar to Europeans for more than a century. And in a strange twist of global commerce, human immigrants headed to the Americas brought the originally Mexican birds with them back across the Atlantic. "Settlers attempted to re-create their European lifestyle in the Americas and transported all their domestic animals, including turkeys," says Speller. "The commercially raised birds that we eat today are ultimately descended from those turkeys that were imported back from Europe to the Eastern Seaboard during the 17th and 18th centuries."
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