Turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) - Domestication History

History of the Domestication of Turkeys

Ocellated Turkey at Tikal
Ocellated Turkey at Tikal. Lilac Breasted Roller

The turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) was definitely domesticated in the New World, but its specific origins are somewhat problematic. Archaeological specimens of wild turkey have been found in North America that date to the Pleistocene, and turkeys were emblematic of many Woodland tribes in North America as seen at sites such as Mississippian Etowah. The earliest signs of domestication found to date appear in Maya sites such as Cobá beginning about 100 BC-100 AD.

Turkey Species

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is indigenous to much of the eastern and southwestern US, northern Mexico and southeastern Canada. Six subspecies are recognized by biologists: eastern (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), Florida (M. g. osceola), Rio Grande (M.g. intermedia), Merriam's (M.g. merriami), Gould's (M.g. mexicana), and southern Mexican (M.g. gallopavo). The differences among them are primarily habitat, but there are minor differences in body size and plumage coloration.

The ocellated turkey (Agriocharis ocellata or Meleagris ocellata) is considerably different in size and coloration and thought by some a separate species entirely. It is native to the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico and, interestingly enough, is today often found wandering in Maya ruins such as Tikal. The ocellated turkey is more resistant to domestication, but was among the turkeys kept in pens by the Aztecs as described by the Spanish.

Turkeys were used by precolumbian North American societies for meat and egg consumption, and their feathers were prized for decorative objects and clothing. The hollow long bones of turkeys were also adapted for use as musical instruments and bone tools.

Turkey Domestication

At the time of the Spanish colonization, there were domesticated turkeys both in Mexico among the Aztecs, and in the pueblo societies of the American southwest.

Evidence suggests that the turkeys from the southwest were actually imported from Mexico about AD 300, and perhaps re-domesticated in the southwest about 1100 AD when turkey husbandry really took off. Wild turkeys were found by the European colonists throughout the eastern woodlands. Variations in coloration were noted in the 16th century, and many turkeys were carted back to Europe.

Archaeological evidence for turkey domestication accepted by scholars includes the presence of turkeys outside of their original habitats, the construction of pens, turkey burials, turkey demography including juveniles, healed long bone fractures, and the presence of quantities of eggshell. Recent work using patterned calcium absorption in eggshell to pick out shell which came from hatched eggs has added another possible route of investigation.


This article is part of the About.com Guide to the History of Animal Domestication.

Buss, Edward G. 1989 Genetics of turkeys: Origin and development. World's Poultry Science Journal 45:27-52.

Beacham, E. B. and Stephen R. Durand 2007 Eggshell and the archaeological record: new insights into turkey husbandry in the American Southwest. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(10):1610-1621.

Mock, K. E., et al. 2002 Genetic variation across the historical range of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Molecular Ecology 11:643–657.