How Mexico’s ‘chicken peacocks’ conquered the world

‘The bad household’ by Crispijn van de Passe (detail) via the Rijksmuseum

Note the boy on the left and the dog on the lower right, both seizing the moment to make off with a prized turkey. This engraving was made in 1589, not long after the arrival of domesticated turkeys in Europe. The species, native to what is now Mexico, was unknown to Europeans until the early 16th Century when plundering Spaniards brought them back from America.

A turkey artifact from ancient Mexico.

Recent scientific work has revealed evidence of intense, sophisticated breeding of turkeys and at least two instances of turkey domestication in Mexico before the arrival of the conquistadores. All of the stock grown around the world today derive from birds domesticated in Mesoamerica, where production and long-distance trading of turkeys were underway by 300 B.C.

It’s amazing to me how quickly the bird became a symbol of abundance in Renaissance art. Thus, in Jan Saenredam’s 1604 engraving of Eden, lo and behold, a tom turkey at the foot of Eve in that lost paradise:

The turkey had a starring role in much Renaissance art. The engraving below by Adriaen Collaert was made in Antwerp, possibily as early as 1598. (The name “Gallus indicus” inscribed above the turkey reflects lingering confusion about the New World being connected to India.)

The scientific name for turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, which roughly translated from Latin means “chicken peacock.” Here’s a Mexican chicken peacock with other creatures listening to the lyre of Orpheus in a Collaert engraving from around 1570:

Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) actually aren’t that closely related to chickens (Gallus gallus) or peafowl (Pavo cristatus). Their lineages diverged about 40 million years ago. The phylogenetic tree below (from a paper in PLoS Biology reporting the complete genome sequence of the turkey) shows that chickens and peacocks are more closely related to each other than either species is related to turkeys:

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