It turns out that most turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving in the United States are not originally from the United States. Instead, most of these birds originated from Latin America. Archaeologist Erin Thornton said, “These are essentially Mexican birds, arrived in the U.S. by way of Europe.”
According to genetic studies, M. gallopavo, which is most commonly known as the South Mexican wild turkey, is the ancestor of virtually every domesticated turkey in the United States.
Archaeologists have located various bones of these wild turkeys in Latin America that date back to as early as 300 B.C. It is believed that the turkeys were traded by humans and raised in captivity. Based on the low numbers of these turkeys, it is likely that they were reserved for the elite.
Meanwhile, a different lineage of turkeys was also domesticated in the American Southwest around this same time period. However, it is believed that these turkeys were used for purposes other than eating.
University of York archaeologist Camilla Speller said, “It does look like the very earliest domesticated turkeys in the Southwest were probably not for eating but used more for ritual purposes, for feather blankets, for prayer stick feathers perhaps, and even ritual interment.”
As for the Latin American turkeys, by the time the Spanish had reached the New World during the 15th century, the birds had become widely used domestically. Humans and beasts consumed the turkeys in large quantities.
Speller explained, “The Spanish encountered them very early on when they came to the Americas. 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.”
From there, the Spanish grew fond of the turkeys, and they brought them back to Europe sometime around the year 1500. The introduction of turkeys to Europe was a major success.
Speller said, “Certainly turkeys spread very rapidly. In about a hundred years we can see them spread throughout Europe."
By the time the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock held their original 1621 Thanksgiving feast, Europeans were already very familiar with turkeys. Ironically, the pilgrims actually brought their turkeys, which originally came from Latin America, back to America. They farmed these turkeys and consumed them at their inaugural feast.
Speller said, “Settlers attempted to re-create their European lifestyle in the Americas and transported all their domestic animals, including turkeys. 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.”
It just represents another reason that America is a country of immigrants. Even the Thanksgiving turkey is a foreigner.