The practice of buying a turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving Day might have its origin in the ancient Mayan civilisation, as a new study has shown that they domesticated turkey and sacrificed it for rituals.
Researchers from the University of Florida found that the turkey, one of the most widely consumed birds worldwide, was domesticated by the ancient Mayans nearly 2,500 years ago.
The discovery of the bones in the ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala provides evidence of domestication and trading, is usually a significant mark of civilization, and the earliest evidence of trade between the Mayan world and the northern Meso-America tribes during the Late Pre-classic period from 300 BC to AD 100.
“The discovery of the turkey bones is significant because the Mayans did not use a lot of domesticated animals. While they cultivated domesticated plants, most of their animal protein came mostly from wild resources,” said lead author Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“The turkey bones came from right within the ceremonial precinct of the site, so these are probably the remains of some sort of elite sacrifice, meal or feast,” Thornton said.
The bones were recovered from the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the largest and most developed Preclassic locations found in the Maya lowlands.
“Plant and animal domestication suggests a much more complex relationship between humans and the environment you’re intentionally modifying it and controlling it,” Thornton said.
“Researchers assumed turkey bones previously recovered from Maya sites belonged to the native ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata. The new evidence means researchers may need to re-examine previously recovered bones,” said Florida State University anthropology professor Mary Pohl.
Scientists determined the turkey fossils belonged to the non-local species Meleagris gallopavo, which is native to central and northern Mexico.
The Mexican turkey is the ancestor of all domestic turkeys consumed in the world today and Meso-America’s only indigenous domesticated animal.
“I find it especially interesting that these turkey bones are in this very special pyramid context because people often think of turkeys as something to eat, but they were probably making some sort of special offerings of them, which would go along with the fact that they brought them in from a long distance,” Pohl said in a statement.