Who Were The First To Serve Turkey? Odd Facts To Share At The Thanksgiving Table

As families sit around the Thanksgiving table, enjoying a cornucopia of seasonal delights, including a succulent stuffed turkey, one of the safest topics to banter over is the topic of bird. Where did they come from? Why is this fowl called a “turkey” and are the Pilgrims the first to to eat these tasty birds? Here are some odd facts about the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal that should keep families united and not divided this holiday season.

Thank You Mayans

We can thank the Mayans, not the Pilgrims, for domesticating the turkey. According to zooarchaeologists at the University of Florida, turkeys were domesticated 2,300 years ago by the Mayans in a site the is now in modern day Guatemala.

How do scientists know this? According to Sci-News, when the DNA analysis was taken from ancient turkey bones uncovered, the answer surprised scientists. They assumed that the turkeys were local, but instead, they were from central and northern Mexico, so they were not caught in the wild. This proved that the Mayans began domesticating turkeys about 1,000 years before they originally thought.

It should be noted that the most domesticated turkeys in the world are from Mexico, including the one served on the American Thanksgiving table.

There Are Only Two Species of Turkeys

In the entire world, there are only two species of turkeys, and both are from North America.

The wild turkey is what lives in the wild in the United States and Canada. The Latin name of Meleagris gallopavo is what the Pilgrims ate, and hunters shoot in the fall.

According to Modern Farmer, the ocellated turkey is found in Mexico’s lovely Yucatan Peninsula down to Guatemala. This is called Meleagris ocellata and this is the turkey that “graces tables at Thanksgiving.”

Why This Bird Is Called A Turkey?

How did the turkey get its name? According to NPR they are not totally sure, but there are two similar theories, and both have to do with the country of Turkey.

The first “theory” is that those very birds that originally came from Mexico, thanks to the Mayans, came to Great Britain via Constantinople, which was in Turkey at that time.

The Brits referred to the fowl as a “Turkey Coq,” and eventually, they shortened it to “Turkey.” The British also called rugs from this area “Turkey rugs,” Indian flour, “Turkey flour” and continued on that way of naming everything that came from that port city on the Black Sea.

The second “theory” is that Europeans called all wild fowl, such as guinea fowl, “Turkey Coq.” These particular birds came from West Africa, and again, through the port of Constantinople.

They further explain that when the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, when they saw a big wild bird, they immediately called it a “turkey,” no matter which bird they were accustomed to eating back home.

They also noted that in the country of Turkey, they call the fowl that is eaten at the Thanksgiving table, “Hindi,” which is short for India. India was where Christopher Columbus thought he reached when he actually arrived to North America, thus the name.


Turkey Was Popular Years Before Pilgrims

Although Americans associate turkey with Thanksgiving, Europeans were eating turkey for nearly 200 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, thanks to Christopher Columbus.

Spaniards fell in love with the fowl and King Ferdinand had every ship returning from America bring five males and five females back to Spain.

The Modern Turkey Is Closely Related To Its Dinosaur Ancestor

The modern chicken and your Thanksgiving turkey’s chromosomes are closely related to their “feathered dinosaur” ancestor more than any other type of bird. These birds have “undergone the fewest number of changes from their ancient ancestor,” although the modern domesticated birds are “one of the least diverse types of livestock around.” Breeding programs focus on making modern turkeys have larger breasts due to the popularity of breast meat.


[Featured Image by John Moore/Getty Images]