It was a very curious thing, when reading up on the history of the Maya, to learn that, in fact, native Mexican people had domesticated the turkey way back in 800 BCE.

Now, I don't often get to thinking about turkeys, but when I have, I had always thought of them as something that ran around wild while the Pilgrims shot at them...and, perhaps, drank them. In other words, I thought of them as a northern bird; native, surely, but not domesticated until at least after colonists had arrived.

I knew that native people had domesticated corn very early on, and ate guinea pigs and dogs, but the animals they consumed seemed very much apart from my life in 2011 New York City, hot dog vendors excepted. And Massachusetts is a long way from Mexico! How had I not realized that the most patriotic, fat and stupid bird of the USA had been domesticated many centuries ago by native peoples?

Furthermore, where were all the turkey tacos?

The answer is, nothing is straightforward.

North America is home to the wild turkey, that brown-colored, naked-headed bird with a wattle and a gobble. But the animal didn't just live in the cold forests of Massachusetts. It originally ranged across the continent, down to the deserts of the West and into the jungles of Central America. Can you imagine a turkey on a cactus, or being devoured by a jaguar?

The colorful fan tail of the turkey makes more sense in a tropical environment, where many birds are brightly feathered, but it does not inspire the same air of awe or exoticism as a scarlet macaw or a quetzal, to say the least...

In Central Mexico, there is a creature called the ocellated turkey. It is called "ocellated" (from the Latin root for "eye") because its tail, like the peacock's, has spots that look like eyes. It was an animal known by the Maya and used for its blood, meat, and feathers. It was kept in pens and slaughtered, sometimes as a sacrifice. Modern Maya people still use turkey blood in religious ceremonies.

Ah! So, this creature must be the ancestor of the turkey we enjoy in sandwiches and hand-based art projects to this day!

Not so fast...the ocellated turkey is a separate species from the North American variety. It doesn't have a wattle -- it only has a snood (there's a Scrabble word for you). It's more colorful and smaller. "Well," you say, "wild ancestors can be very different from their domesticated forms." Compare a shih tzu to a wolf.

The problem there is, the North American wild turkey's plumage is pretty much identical to the domesticated turkey's, although it is a much more athletic creature as it is not burdened with enormous breasts, which even a human being would find a burden when running from predators. Perhaps, you speculate that this bird is merely a feral version of an animal derived from the ocellated variety. But, currently science separates the two as distinct beings.

The Maya also knew of both varieties of turkeys, though Spanish reports appear to call the ocellated turkey "wild" and the North American wild turkey "domestic", in a mess of nomenclature worthy of Spirulina. See

Today, the ocellated turkey runs wild while the wild turkey's descendants are domesticated, continuing the confusion from years long past. And the wild turkey's domestication first occured years gone past-er.

Fossil evidence of the North American wild turkey's domestication comes from bones and the ever-lively coprolite, or fossil dung. I wonder how scientists determine that a particular lump of dung is from a turkey and not from a very well-fed chicken, or perhaps an enormous hummingbird? Circumstancial evidence must play a part. Maybe the dung was found in a hole in the ground, next to a primitive clay tablet of "Amazing Wattles" magazine?

This, of course, is not the case. Much like the glamorous biologists of Jurassic Park, the turkey scientists studied ancient DNA...gathered from bird feces...which I seem to not remember from that movie.

The scientists found that the very poorly named "wild" turkey was domesticated not once, but twice, by two separate groups. The first domestication was brought about by anscestors of the Aztec people, in 800 BCE. The second was brought about by anscestors of the Pueblo people, in 200 BCE. Is the current bird, beloved of Thanksgiving, a hybrid of the two?

The scientists think not. It seems that the Pueblo bird eventually died out. It was closely related to two current subspecies, the Eastern and Rio Grande wild turkeys, but based on the genetic evidence the current domesticated bird is from the Aztec.

The scientists also used the genetic evidence to rule out the South Mexican subspecies as a direct predescessor of the domesticated turkey. Previous to this, it was believed that this subspecies had given rise to the domesticated bird.

So...the Aztec turkey is directly responsible for the current breeds, right?

Not quite.

You see, the Spanish transported Aztec birds back to Europe, where they were bred, first for ornamental feathers, then for food, and then, in the 17th century, they were brought to the North East with English colonists, where domesticated turkeys had never existed before. And this is where we get our Thanksgiving bird.

As for the turkey tacos...check out for a brief exploration of the role of turkey in Mexican cuisine.

As for the name, "turkey", when clearly they should be called "mexicos"? That's another mess altogether...

An overview of the two species of turkey
Discovery News articles on turkey domestication
The paper on turkey genetics as related to domestication

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