Adam Larson The Thanksgiving turkey’s history actually starts in the Southern Hemisphere — with dinosaurs
The traditional history of Thanksgiving begins exactly 400 years ago in New England with a meal shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans. But that’s a very narrow way to understand the origins of this beloved American holiday. Focusing on one dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 means we ignore the meal’s fascinating — and more far-flung — prehistory.
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without surprises from relatives — and turkeys certainly have surprising relatives: meat-eating theropod dinosaurs.
Many of the foods we enjoy on Thanksgiving and associate with Northeastern U.S. agriculture are the products of millions of years of evolution that took place all around the world, from South America to Asia. By taking the larger historical view, we can see how our feast is not just national but also global, and millions of years in the making.
All living things on Earth today, including everything on your dinner table and the people sitting around it, are descended from a common ancestor that lived more than 3 billion years ago. While this single-celled common ancestor might have resembled some of the microbes in the crumbs on your tablecloth, there’s no way you’d mistake it for any of your usual holiday dishes.
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That’s because it took a few billion years just for life to become multicellular, and it took several hundred million years after that for multicellular life to branch out into some of the first major forms of complex life we see today, like sponges and worms. I’m willing to hazard a guess that sponge casserole won’t be on many dinner tables this year (though your Aunt Mabel’s sponge cake might unfortunately remind you of one). You would have to continue further ahead in time to the Late Cretaceous Period to find plants and animals recognizable as the ancestors of our Thanksgiving foods.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without surprises from relatives — and turkeys certainly have surprising relatives: meat-eating theropod dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex. In fact, Tyrannosaurus rex, the king of the dinosaurs, and living turkeys shared a common ancestor about 190 million years ago. To put it simply, birds are living dinosaurs. And turkeys, along with chickens, have kept even more of the DNA they shared with dinosaurs than other birds alive today, making them a little closer to their deceased dino granddaddies than more fearsome birds like eagles and falcons.