The Surprising Origin of Thanksgiving Foods

The Surprising Origin of Thanksgiving Foods

If you time-warped a few Pilgrims to your
Thanksgiving table, they’d probably accuse you of being a witch. [YELLING] But they’d recognize a lot of the food,
just bigger, better, and tastier versions of what they ate. Many traditional Thanksgiving foods are scienced
up versions of native New World species. What may surprise you is that before DNA,
genetics, or Europeans showed up, the original residents of the Americas had already been
molding these foods for thousands of years, turning the wild and barely-edible into domesticated
deliciousness. [OPEN] Despite the name, the turkey is from here. Ben Franklin preferred the gobbler over the
eagle for America’s national bird, it was (in his words) “a true original Native of
America.” Today, most of us can’t tell a snood from
a caruncle, but turkeys were hugely important to many early American cultures. In fact along with dogs, llamas, alpacas,
and guinea pigs, turkeys are one of the few domesticated animals native to the Americas. Ancient trash dug up by archaeologists tells
us about two thousand years ago a few Native American cultures realized breeding birds
in captivity is easier than chasing them through the forest. Luckily those birds pooped a lot, and old
poop is one of an archaeologist’s favorite things. Fecal forensics can tell us a bunch of information
about the animal that dropped that dung. When scientists analyzed DNA from turkey coprolites
found at archaeological sites in the American Southwest, they found that a single turkey
lineage was maintained in the area for like a thousand years. These native cultures were breeding and trading
turkeys in a really sophisticated way long before European contact. Today’s turkeys don’t bear much resemblance
to the rugged pioneer birds who waddled among the Pilgrims and Native Americans. This is the broad-breasted white, turkey of
choice on modern farms, less bird, more ball-of-meat-and-feathers. It’s been selectively bred to turn feed
into meat, and it does that really well. Modern turkeys can turn 2.5 pounds of bird
food into a pound of bird and hit full size in just five months. Even our grandparents would be shocked at
the size of today’s birds, since 1930 the average weight of a turkey has doubled. Farmers make bigger, meatier turkeys by crossing
the biggest, meatiest turkeys in each generation to amplify the gene variants for bigness and
meatiness… but this only works to a point. The birds get so big they can’t actually
do the mating deed. Unless farmers do it for them. Today’s turkeys only exist because artificial
insemination has let them break through the barriers of natural selection… and gravity. Ear’s another mutant from the Thanksgiving
menu. Get it? EAR! Too corny? Tough crowd. This is teosinte, a wild grass from Mexico
and the genetic ancestor of corn, or maize. The ancestor of your turkey was still a turkey,
but ancient corn… really doesn’t look worth the trouble. We know early Americans first started farming
and breeding teosinte about 9000 years ago, but that’s not that long ago considering
how different today’s butter-drenched sugar missiles are from their ancestor. Modern experiments on wild teosinte turned
up some surprises: As few as 5 genetic changes, in the right places, might have been enough
to invent corn, or at least something that looks like corn. Once farmers had that basic corn template,
they coaxed smaller, slower changes from thousands of genes to get specific traits. Today, we know genetic modification of corn
is less “farmers in the field” and more “scientists in the lab”, but both are
proof that evolution doesn’t always play out as a slow, gradual process. Small changes to single genes can have huge
effects, especially if natural selection is replaced by human hands. There’s similar stories behind most other
Thanksgiving foods: How a starchy root from the mountains of Chile
was mutated into the mighty potato, and its tiny cousin the potato tot. How tiny bitter squashes became sweet pumpkins,
which were somehow then turned into this. How a swamp fruit became delicious cranberry
sauce, which somehow morphed into whatever they put in those cans. How the first people to cross the Bering Strait
found a nut that wasn’t actually a nut, and gave us the most delicious pie in the
world… pronounced pec-ahn, not pee-can. What ties these all together? Every cross of meaty turkeys or sweet corn
takes an organism’s genes and modifies them, it’s just a question of scale. Even “heritage”, “heirloom”, and other
old-sounding varieties are mutant versions of wild plants and animals, hacked by hungry
humans to be richer, tastier, and easier to grow. Some of those humans wear lab coats, but some
were here thousands of years before we ever sat down at the table. Let’s be thankful for all the people that
made this meal possible. Stay curious. Fun fact about teosinte: those tough seeds
evolved to pass through an animal’s digestive system intact, so they could be “dispersed”…
corn might look different, but that’s one trait corn kind of still carries today. If you know what I’m saying. You know, it’s never too early to start
holiday shopping. Might I suggest a stylish “I Did a Science”
t-shirt? Now available in ladies’ cut from our friends
at DFTBA, just click up there, or check the link in the description. And if that’s not your style, I hear the
gift of knowledge is perfect for any season.

100 thoughts on “The Surprising Origin of Thanksgiving Foods

  • Mean of Native according to Cambridge Dictionary: used to refer to plants and animals that grow naturally in a place, and have not been brought there from somewhere else.
    Therefore, unless there is evidence of domestication of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) in America, evidence tells us that the dog was introduced to America by the first humans.

  • Facts are wrong and the sources of these outrageous claims of domestication of animals and plants before european explorers in eastern america is a JOKE!

  • Knowing native american bread teosinte is false, the plant is found far from the "modern day" corn is found.. FALSE NEWS

  • Look at all these genetically modified foods.

    I mean, what is waiting for random mutations to occur (often influenced by background radiation) and then selectively breeding them other than modifying the genetics of those organisms?

  • How are the coprolites even old enough to turn to stone? Am I overestimating how long it takes living stuff to fossilize? Because I thought the most recently formed stone-based fossils were from Australopithecus afarensis or earlier, so before true hominids (genus Homo) even existed! So are there groups of humans old enough to have been already fossilized where they lay?

  • 4:20 Or how we domesticated Avocados after their car-sized predators (mega armadillos and mega sloths) got wiped out by those same people. Then again, it's been a while, do Avocados count as Thanksgiving food? Point is, the reason for that huge seed is because the seeds are meant to be eaten by things that aren't even existent things anymore.

  • Chile thanks for giving us potatoes everyone give all your money to chile they deserve it for giving us potatoes ๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿฅ”๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ถ๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ท๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ฐ๐Ÿ’ธ๐Ÿ’ธ๐Ÿ’ธ๐Ÿ’ฐ๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ธ๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ธ๐Ÿ’ธ๐Ÿ’ฐ๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’Ž๐Ÿ’ฐ๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’Ž๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’ด๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ณ๐Ÿ’ต๐Ÿ’Ž๐Ÿ’ณ

  • Selective breeding animals for a specific trait that we want is cool and all, but it getting to the point to where the animals themselves can't mate and we have to artificially inseminate them? That sounds like we went overboard.

  • i wonder what would of happened if the native americans learned how to domesticate the tank that is the buffalo

  • Dear Dr. Hansen
    I love your show, been slow to find it, but I can promise I won't miss a single episode from now on ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Oh yes, thanks now I get it ! Decade years-old petro-industrial patents-protecting sorcerers apprentices from rich countries do the exact same job than millenium knowledge backed careful selectionners from every people on the planet. Thanks a lot for this I feel enlighted.

  • Next time I'm eating corn, or some meat from chickens or other things. I'm gonna apressiate what our ansasters did before us.
    But it's hard not to take it forgranded.

  • You forgot the part where the scientists played Dr. Frankenstein and pasted some insect DNA in to the corn to create Franken – fruit which kills of all of the bees.
    ..I couldn't stomach watching the rest of the video. The B.S. was just too deep.

  • That feeling when you realize that ancient peoples (be it Native American, European, Asian, African, etc.) had discovered Evolution long before Darwin was born. When humanity domesticated cattle, pigs, corn, or any other organism and began selectively breeding them to "genetically modify" their offspring to be larger and meatier, we were essentially cheating Evolution in our favor to help sustain our population growth. Even if they didn't call it Evolution, they obviously realized and knew what they were doing….Darwin can suck it, Ancient Farmers are the real discoverers of Evolution….he just wrote a book on it.

  • Your cranberry pic is not Vaccinium macrocarpum, but actually highbush cranberry, Viburnum trilobum (popular in landscaping and edible if cooked with enough sugar, but not commercially grown). Cranberries are trailing plants with small, evergreen foliage and reflexed-petal ("crane like", with the forward jutting stamens and pistil resembling the bird's beak) flowers that are not in corymbs.
    Muscovy (warty faced) ducks were also domesticated in the Americas. (Even though wild mallards are here also, mallards were domesticated-into all other domestic duck breeds- in the Old World.)

  • Instead modern turkeys cant even reproduce properly and they need to be artificially inseminated….wow thatโ€™s just sad.

  • In Catalan, turkey is "gall dindi", it means: rooster from India. Now we know that is not India… Be curios!

  • 4:24, I'm so happy that pecan is pronounced correctly. No one I know pees in a can, nor do we eat pee-cans.

  • Genetic Modification by inserting cross-species genes (not marker selection) is an abomination and a way for genetics companies to patent life itself

  • People might think this is funny but our family took a vacation in Julien Ca.during one thanksgiving and my older brother tagged along with the family on this trip with with his brand new Crystler 300. We all went to town for the last day of the trip and all of us were headed back from town to where we were staying. As my brother drove along the road we were all happy, laughimg,and joking in the car when all of a sudden this huge black bird came from the clearing and you guessed it dirt flew everywhere in an abundant amount along with black feathers accross the car windshield as my brother. slammed on the breaks. The gigantic black feathered bird turmed out to be a turkey at roughly 25 to at least 30 lbs. or maybe even more. We weren't sure for certain but this bird was huge. After my brother hit the turkey head on with his car it was in really bad shape and undrivable. The person I felt bad for the most was my daughter because she loves animals and she saw the whole thing go down and broke out into tears after the accident . It took a whole lot of convincing to let her know that the bird was alright when it clearly wasn't. Today my daughter still refuses to eat turkey because of the accident and I'm not going to try to change her mind either.

  • Poor turkeys, they were bred and cramped together to gain so much weight, their legs break and thus have to sit around in pain for weeks in their own waste! They even become cannibals, eating their own (dead) kind. Damnit, scientists! Stop playing God! Go plant based!

  • The channel title is ironic, right? That's the whole point, right? That it's an obvious joke that this channel actually makes people smart. "Gently educating toddlers" might be more appropriate, the way he baby-talks to his audience!

  • Posted on Google+ 11/20/2018:
    Food for Thought…2,000 years ago the "president pardoned birds; Pea and Carrot" ancestry is tracked down through poop!


    Happy Thanksgiving.

  • I donโ€™t like all of this GMO stuff we are doing. The only form of GMO, if it is even consider GMO, that I agree with is selective breeding. I donโ€™t like the whole idea of inserting chemicals and hormones into organisms and messing with genes and playing god. It isnโ€™t right

  • Can we talk about how "Thanksgiving" is mis-spelled in the thumbnail? If it's okay to be smart, then I assume it's okay to proofread.


  • This why I laugh when I see a vegetable or fruit at the store that says "non-gmo", especially corn or bananas. Its impossible to have a non-gmo version of something thats already a gmo.

  • It appears there was a lot of guessing on the origins of the animal. In French they call it 'dinde' (from India) and in Dutch it is 'kalkoen' (Calcutta) . Tracking back the origins of corn would be a 'mais' to me.

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