Thanksgiving turkey’s Mexican Connection —
When was turkey, the famous fowl closely associated with many festive meals and direct descendant of wild Mexican turkeys, first named? Nobody can answer for sure. The most likely explanation given says that the merchants of middle ages who traded between the Middle East and England were based in the Turkish Empire and hence known as “Turkey merchants”. They are believed to have introduced the guinea fowl, a native of Madagascar, to European dinner tables.
Later, the larger New World bird, the present-day turkey, was brought back to Spain by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Peru in the 16th century. The rearing of this bird gradually spread to other parts of Europe and North Africa. The Turkey merchants capitalizing on the new opportunity began supplying this bird instead of guinea fowls to the English market, and the rest is history.
The first use in English of the word “turkey” to describe the bird dates back to 1555. By 1575, turkey was already becoming the preferred main course for Christmas dinner. Curiously, the Turkish name for the turkey is hindi, which is probably derived from “chicken of India”, perhaps based on the then-common misconception that Columbus had reached the Indies.
Domesticated at least 1,500 years ago
Mexico’s wild turkeys had been domesticated by pre-Columbian Indian groups long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Several archaeological sites provide tantalizing clues as to precisely how turkeys were reared. One such site is Casas Grandes in the northern state of Chihuahua (a Mexican state bordering the United States).
Recent research suggests that the bird was first domesticated by humans at least 1,500 years ago. The evidence comes from a clutch of intact eggs found in an old fortress in Oaxaca, Mexico. The researchers believe that the eggs, which date to between 400 and 500 AD, were used by ancient people as some sort of ritualistic offering of sacrifice to their gods.
“Finding those eggs intact was mind-blowing,” said Gary Feinman, an archeologist from the Field Museum in Chicago. “I have been excavating for decades and I have never ever found intact eggs like that in that quantity ever.”
In 2009 Dr. Feinman and his colleagues uncovered several whole eggs that were buried together beneath two households in the Mitla Fortress, which was once inhabited by the Zapotec people, a Mesoamerican civilization that was a neighbor of the Mayans, who lived there between 300 and 1,200 AD. The Zapotecs were known to offer blood sacrifices, sometimes during important events such as burials, marriages and births, or for healing and agricultural rituals. Before constructing a new home, they would sometimes sacrifice a turkey hatchling, eat it and then bury its remains beneath the floors or within the walls.
“We were not surprised to find offerings per se, but we were surprised to find an offering of a cluster of turkey eggs,” said Dr. Feinman.
They found four offerings and a grave that had turkey eggs and bones. The biggest offering contained 5 whole eggs and about 7 baby turkey skeletons beneath the floor. The researchers said that in order for the residents to have both baby turkeys and turkey eggs within their houses, they must have been breeding and raising the birds nearby.
“It’s the earliest solid evidence of domesticated turkey in southern Mexico that we have to date,” Dr. Feinman said. He and his colleagues published their results in The Journal of Archeological Science.
Within the housed in Mitla Fortress, the team found several eggshells and more than 400 bones belonging to baby and adult turkeys. About a quarter of the bones were fashioned into tools or jewellery, but most appeared to have been discarded in trash pits. Turkey’s weren’t the only animals that the Mitla Fortress residents domesticated. They also raised dogs to eat and sacrifice.
Heather A Lapham, an archeologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the lead author of the study, analysed the bones and showed they belonged to turkeys. She and the other researchers also confirmed with a scanning electron microscope that the eggs were from turkeys as well.
The findings are the earliest evidence of tamed turkeys in southern Mexico, moving back the oldest known signs that turkeys were being raised by people. The oldest examples in northern Mexico date to around 500 AD, although most archeological evidence in the region does not appear until 900 AD, according to the authors. In the Southwest United States some of the earliest domestic turkey evidence comes from sites that date to around 600 AD.
The authors note that there was an older turkey bone found in a cave in southern Mexico that is dated to 180 AD, but they argue that the evidence from that bone is not enough to suggest that it was domesticated instead of wild.
Joel L Cracraft, curator of the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, was not involved in the study and said the paper provided clear evidence of turkey domestication by the Zapotecs some 1,500 years ago.
“It seems that it pushes domestication back another 100 to 200 years,” he said.
The first Thanksgiving
Don Adams and Teresa Kendrick have presented a strong case that the very first Thanksgiving celebration by Europeans in North America was held not in the U.S. at all, but in Mexico, on April 30, 1598. It is claimed by the above researchers that the first Thanksgiving Celebration was held in Mexico, on the south bank of the Río Bravo and not in Massachusetts or Newfoundland.
This date certainly precedes the claims of Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts, site of the 1621 thanksgiving, and negates the latter’s claim to be the birthplace of Thanksgiving. One curious historical footnote is that the feast on that occasion apparently did not include either turkey or potatoes!
The events leading up to the First Thanksgiving in the New World began in 1573 when the Spanish King Felipe II signed a document called the Colonization Laws of Spain. This document provided the incentive for adventurers to launch expeditions into Mexico, called at that time by the Spanish “New Spain”, to find wealth and to elevate their prestige with the Spanish crown.
The Oñate expedition and their Manso guests then went on to celebrate their April 30th Thanksgiving with a feast of fish, “many cranes, ducks and geese”, and supplies from their stores. Little more was reported about the menu, but one thing is certain: at the First Thanksgiving no one ate turkey.