Origin of the turkey in Mexico, an absolute must at the table

The turkey cannot be absent from the table in Mexican gastronomy. Stuffed, boneless, baked, roasted, there are 1000s of recipes to prepare this bird.

Origin of the turkey in Mexico, an absolute must at the table
The origins of the turkey (guajolote) in Mexico cannot be missing at the table. Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

At a wedding, a baptism, a first communion, a quinceañera, and, of course, at Christmas celebrations, the turkey is an element of Mexican gastronomy that cannot be absent from the table. Stuffed, boneless, baked, roasted, there are thousands of recipes to prepare this bird, which since pre-Hispanic times has starred in various delicacies in offerings and rituals.

The turkey left the continent in the sixteenth century and in that time became a crucial element of the world's daily diet, especially processed as cold meat in refrigerators, but to get there, its history is neither linear nor simple.

In Mexico, little of this bird is produced and consumed. In 2019 it was estimated that a person would eat about a kilo and a half, being the end of the year when 83 percent of Mexican production is consumed, however, the national demand is not covered and what is missing is imported.

Although two genera of this bird are known to originate in North America: the ocellated (Meleagris ocellata) and the northern (Meleagris gallopavo), the latter is the best known and the one that has reached a worldwide distribution thanks to its intense interactions with humans, which has made it difficult to unravel its natural geographic distribution and its domestication process.

Since the 20th century, it has been estimated that three subspecies of the northern turkey existed in Mexico, two of which are considered relevant: the Mexican, which occupies the north-central part of the country; the intermediate, in the northeast; and a third called gallopavo, located in the center and south of the national territory.

The distribution of the northern turkey, based on its oldest record, shows that it is a Nearctic species, associated with temperate forests, that is, typical of the Mexican Altiplano, which coincides with that of the Mexican and intermediate subspecies. But considering field data from the 20th century, and combining them with those of the chronicles of the Conquest, it was suggested that the distribution of the subspecies of the guajolote 'gallopavo', covered the states of Michoacán, Guerrero, State of Mexico, Federal District, Puebla, and Veracruz.

Naturally, this species was not found in that region, although there are pre-Hispanic records of remains of the bird, so it is not possible to determine whether the populations in the center of the country at that time were natural or domesticated.

In an attempt to analyze this issue, using various databases, INAH Morelos Center researcher Eduardo Corona Martínez constructed a map showing the changes in the bird's distribution based on the archaeological record in Mexican localities, which spans from approximately 11,000 years ago to the 16th century.

The map shows that during the Lithic stage, the distribution tends to be located in the Mexican Altiplano, congruent with its natural distribution, and suggests that it was part of the environmental scenarios known to the first settlers in the Late Pleistocene.

For the Preclassic, the records are concentrated in the Basin of Mexico, Puebla, and Morelos, from the latter a complete specimen of turkey was documented as part of a burial offering of a female character; while those of the first entity seems to be associated with the early stages of domestication of maize; by this time it is already linked to cultural contexts, used as food, and acquired symbolic characteristics in the contexts of Olmec affiliation in Morelos.

The hypothesis is that these Olmec groups -at a stage yet to be determined- were the first to bring the turkey to their living areas, incorporating it into their economy and way of life, which facilitated the attribution of symbolic elements to it, unlike other sites where it is only found as a food remnant.

In the Classic period, the presence of this bird expands towards all Mesoamerica, and it is found in Teotihuacan as well as in other localities of central Mexico (Morelos, Puebla, Hidalgo), in addition to the west (Jalisco and Michoacán) and, of course, in the Mayan zone.

In the Postclassic its presence is maintained in the Mayan area (Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo), where both the ocellated turkey and the northern turkey are registered; its expansion is manifested in sites of the north: Zacatecas and Chihuahua, with clear associations towards the region of the Four Towns of the southwest of the United States, where it also gains importance, although it is not known with certainty if it was introduced from Mesoamerica or it was an independent event.

For the colonial period, there are several chronicles, whose data allow us to assume that throughout the Postclassic period and during the process of the Conquest, the use of this bird as a food resource was spreading until it reached the Caribbean islands, and even Costa Rica, in the south.

Thanks to this information, it is known that Mesoamerican peoples, especially those of Mexica origin, had an important relationship with the turkey, although it was not an object of generalized consumption among the population, nor were ducks, pigeons, and quails, since they were reserved for the most important people.