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How turkeys got from Mayan temples to your Thanksgiving dinner table

A flock of turkeys is shown at a Minnesota poultry farm. (Bethany Hahn via AP)

It is an amusing (and apparently apocryphal) piece of Thanksgiving lore that Ben Franklin believed the turkey ought to adorn the presidential seal.

In reality, he was complaining in a letter to his daughter that the eagle chosen for the seal looked more like a turkey. Which, he admitted, he didn’t much mind.

“For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America,” he remarked, according to the Franklin Institute. “He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

In that assessment, Franklin would have found sympathizers among ancient Americans, who regarded the bird with even more respect than the eccentric founding father. Long before turkeys wound up on Thanksgiving dinner tables (or Ben Franklin’s personal presidential seal doodles), they were afforded a place of honor in Mayan and Aztec religions.

Nowadays, they’re America’s waddling every-bird, fit mostly for rapid over-consumption while trying to avoid talking politics with Uncle Steve and bizarre displays of presidential whimsy at the White House.

Here’s the story of how turkeys got to where they are now.

The turkeys we eat today were first domesticated as far back as 2,000 years ago, according to a 2012 study in the journal PLOS One. Deep within the massive stone Jaguar Paw Temple at the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador in Guatemala, scientists have found the bones of seven members of the species Meleagris gallopavo, i.e., the not-so-humble domestic turkey.

El Mirador is hundreds of miles from turkeys’ natural range in central Mexico, according to Science, a sign that the birds were being traded across long-distance exchange networks. And their presence at Jaguar Paw Temple indicates that the creatures were involved in religious practice — perhaps sacrificed in rituals, perhaps eaten as part of a sacred meal. Ocellated turkeys — a close relative of our bird — adorned Mayan manuscripts and temple walls and may have been the dedicated meal of priests and the aristocracy.

In Mexico, according to food historian Andrew F. Smith, turkeys were given as tribute to the Aztec emperor and beheaded for offerings by merchants giving thanks for safe travels. The turkey was deified as Chalchiuhtotolin, the “jeweled bird,” a god of plague and purification.

Meanwhile, in what’s now the American Southwest, turkeys were domesticated for ritual uses — feather blankets, prayer sticks, even ritual interment, archaeologist Camilla Speller of the University of York told Smithsonian Magazine.

As Franklin rightly said, the turkey is an American creature, one of only two domesticated birds native to the New World. But it is not purely American. Like Ernest Hemingway, the bird had to take a detour through Europe before it was embraced by Americans — and got its modern name.

When Spanish explorers departed from their first visit to the court of Moctezuma in the 16th century, they brought hoards of gold and a flock of about 1,500 turkeys back with them, according to the Economist.

In those turbulent times of early globalization, Europeans were ecstatic for exotic imports from the “new” world, but apparently only vaguely concerned with where exactly the new foods came from. Perhaps the unusual American birds reminded them of guinea hens, which had once been imported from Africa through Turkey. Or perhaps they were just in the habit of calling anything foreign “Turkish,” since so many of their imports came from the Ottomans.

Either way, the name “turkey coq,” and eventually just “turkey” stuck, writes NPR’s Robert Krulwich. Before long, the foreign fowl was a staple of European barnyards and Shakespearean plays (“Here he comes, swelling like a turkey-cock,” a character in Henry V announces mockingly).

It was those European-ized birds that wound up getting imported back to North America along with European settlers. As wild American turkeys were hunted nearly to extinction, the domesticated imports became an important source of food for colonists, Smith writes in his book on turkey history.

Which brings us back to Thanksgiving, and Meleagris gallopavo’s dubious place of honor at the center of our dining room table. That tradition has less to do with a 17th century moment of gratitude than a 19th century political maneuver and an ambitious magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale, an early advocate of Thanksgiving celebrations, persuaded Abraham Lincoln to make it a national holiday in 1863 to restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and union” to a country torn apart by the Civil War, according to the Boston Globe. And because a holiday isn’t a holiday until gluttony is involved, she proposed what she deemed an appropriately American menu for the occasion: homemade pumpkin pie, easily made gravy, and turkey — a meat that was both familiar and affordable for 19th century cooks. It may not have resembled the meal that was actually consumed at Plymouth Colony in 1621 (they ate deer), but it was respectable, wholesome, unpretentious food — not like that sauce-drenched frippery aristocrats dined on in Britain and France.

Ben Franklin would probably approve.