Turkeys weren’t always an animal you stuffed with bread, roasted in an oven, and drizzled delicious gravy on top of. In the 3rd century BC, the Mayans viewed Turkeys as honorable creatures that were the embodiment of gods.
The Mayans initially domesticated turkeys for religious purposes. These flightless birds were symbols of power and status and were only owned by wealthy members of society. According to Mayan beliefs, turkeys were gifted extraordinary powers that they could use to harm humans, both in the real world and in the dream sphere.
Excavation projects resulted in countless Mayan artifacts sporting paintings or carvings of turkeys. In addition, one ruler of the Mayan empire even included the word “turkey” in his royal nickname. The Mayans’ love for turkeys went beyond domestication. A 2012 study on the earliest cases of turkey domestication found the remains of non-native turkeys in the ancient Mayan settlement, El Mirador.
Citizens of El Mirador (modern-day Guatemala) were devoted to worshipping pyramid-like sanctuaries while also establishing surprisingly advanced roads and aqueducts. But they were also worshipped turkeys.
Most skeletal turkey remains found in Mayan settlements appear to have originated from Mexico, but the prized species was the ocellated turkey, which exists to this very day. The Mayans were attracted to their multi-colored feathers but had not succeeded in domesticating this species. Had these birds proved tamable, we all might be having ocellated turkey for Thanksgiving instead of broad breasted whites.
Despite being a symbol of power and divinity, turkeys were raised for more than just pets. The ability to domesticate turkeys also provided the Mayans with a means of offering sacrifices without hunting and as bargaining chips for trade. Mayan art shows turkeys with slit throats for New Years’ celebrations, which was done in hopes of having a fertile year ahead.
The reverence of turkeys wasn’t just limited to the Mayan civilization. Native American cultures also deemed turkeys to be symbolic creatures used in a number of different rituals. Many of the same breeds from Mexico also found their way into the hands and settlements of Native American tribes. Apart from being intelligent and powerful beings, turkeys were valued for their feathers, for warding off diseases, and for predicting the weather.
Today, Western cultures honor the bird by roasting and serving it with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy. Many of the same species raised in turkey farms or hunted in the wild share the same DNA with those that had left an impression on civilizations hundreds and even thousands of years ago.