Before Chicken Domestication, The 'Exotic' Birds Were Revered, Not Eaten
Remarkable and extensive new research has shed light on one of the true mysteries of animal domestication. This breakthrough research has revealed important new information about chicken domestication, an animal that has been a staple protein source for a diverse range of cultures and societies across the world. Previous studies had suggested that chicken domestication began as long as 10,000 years ago in Asia, specifically in either China, Southeast Asia, or India. It had further been asserted that chickens were present in Europe approximately 7,000 years ago.
But thanks to the work of a team of European researchers, it has now been revealed that the chicken domestication began much later than had been believed. It seems chicken domestication only began around the year 1500 BC somewhere in Southeast Asia, in the region that is Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand today. This means chickens couldn’t have been in Europe or China thousands of years ago, as had been thought for so long.
Julia Best, one of the chicken domestication study researchers, comparing a reference skeleton from a large modern chicken (top), with an Iron Age chicken skeleton from England (bottom). (Jonathon Rees/ Cardiff University / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Chicken Domestication: A Stunning Review of the Evidence
The latest chicken domestication research was introduced in two different studies that have been published in the journals Antiquity and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The studies were carried out by scholars associated with the Universities of Exeter, Munich, Cardiff, Oxford, Bournemouth, and Toulouse in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, who divided their work into two articles despite cooperating on the research project.
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For the purposes of these studies, the experts re-examined chicken remains recovered from more than 600 archaeological sites in 89 countries. They examined the skeletons to reveal more anatomical details and charted burial locations and collected information about the societies and cultures that had left the remains behind.
Julia Best comparing a leg bone (the tibiotarsus) from an ancient and a modern chicken. Both of these specimens were radiocarbon dated. This image also demonstrates the shape and size difference often visible between ancient specimens and large modern meat birds. (Jonathon Rees/ Cardiff University/ Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Radiocarbon dating was also used to establish clearly when the chickens lived and died. As it turned out, this simple step was groundbreaking and unprecedented.
"This is the first time that radiocarbon dating has been used on this scale to determine the significance of chickens in early societies,” study co-author Dr. Julia Best, an expert in avian archaeology, stated in a University of Exeter press release. “Our results demonstrate the need to directly date proposed early specimens, as this allows us the clearest picture yet of our early interactions with chickens."
The oldest domestic chicken bones were linked to a Neolithic site known as Wat Ban Non in central Thailand. These bones dated to between 1650 and 1250 BC, which pushed their estimated date of origin many centuries closer to modern times than had previously been suggested.
This was also the case with chicken bones retrieved from locations in western Eurasia and northwest Africa. It was found that the earliest chickens had appeared in Europe only around 800 BC, and only after that were they transported on to the Mediterranean regions. It then took another 1,000 years for chickens to become established in the colder northern European climates of Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, and Iceland.
An ancient chicken furcula or wishbone from Weston Down that was used in the chicken domestication study. (Jonathon Rees/ Cardiff University/ Antiquity Publications Ltd)
As suggested by the discovery of the oldest bones in Thailand, the domestication process for chickens actually began in Southeast Asia approximately 2,500 years ago. From there domestic chickens were transported across Asia and on to lands farther west. Those who carried chickens to the west followed trade routes that had been previously established by Greek, Phoenician, and Etruscan traders who traveled through the region by sea.
How Rice Farming Changed the Human-chicken Relationship
One of the most fascinating aspects of this new research is how the scientists were able to link the domestication of chickens with the spread of dry rice farming.
Dry rice farming was invented in Southeast Asia during the second millennium BC. It seems that the growing of ample rice crops on land attracted the attention of the red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken, which populated Southeast Asia in ancient times. These fowl moved closer to human settlements to “steal” rice, and this proximity to humans created a relationship between the two species that eventually led to the red junglefowl being domesticated.
"This comprehensive re-evaluation of chickens firstly demonstrates how wrong our understanding of the time and place of chicken domestication was,” noted study participant Professor Gregor Larson, a geneticist and archaeologist from the University of Oxford. “And even more excitingly, we show how the arrival of dry rice agriculture acted as a catalyst for both the chicken domestication process and its global dispersal."
Interestingly, however, domesticated chickens were not used as a food source immediately after coming into contact with humans. Evidence show that chickens were not regarded as a food source at all in Iron Age Europe, for example (in the first millennium BC), but were instead recognized as a sacred animal. Chickens were found at Iron Age sites in Europe buried alone and without having been intentionally killed, and in some instances, they were buried alongside humans.
"Eating chickens is so common that people think we have never not eaten them,” said study co-author Professor Naomi Sykes, a zooarchaeological expert from the University of Exeter. “Our evidence shows that our past relationship with chickens was far more complex, and that for centuries chickens were celebrated and venerated."
It seems chickens were not used for their eggs or meat widely until the practice was adopted in the Roman Empire. In Britain it wasn’t until the third century AD that chickens were regularly consumed, and even then they were most frequently killed and eaten at urban and military sites connected to Rome.
Archaeology Can and Does Reveal Wrong Assumptions!
Most previous ideas about the antiquity of chickens and their relationship to humans was based on how common they are in all parts of the world, and how they are almost universally used as a food source. The natural assumption was that humans had domesticated chickens thousands of years ago and had been relying on them as a food source right from the beginning.
But this eye-opening new research study shows the risks of projecting current behavior patterns too far into the past.
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"The fact that chickens are so ubiquitous and popular today, and yet were domesticated relatively recently is startling,” acknowledged study co-author Dr, Ophélie Lebrasseur, a zooarchaeologist from the University of Toulouse in France. “Our research highlights the importance of robust osteological comparisons, secure stratigraphic dating and placing early finds within their broader cultural and environmental context."
Past studies of the recovered remains of chickens found in Eurasia and elsewhere had not been in-depth enough to reveal the truth revealed in the latest study. The new research uncovered surprising details about how the relationship between humans and the ancestors of domestic chickens evolved over time.
It was the continued preservation of older recovered chicken bones that facilitated the new findings on the origins of chicken domestication. These archaeological re-evaluations show that even artifacts that have been around forever may contain new answers to old questions if you know what to look for!
Top image: Chicken domestication seems obvious today. For the longest time we have believed chickens were a domesticated food source since the dawn of civilization, but recent archaeological scientists have proven otherwise in a big way! Source: Robert May/ Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Nathan Falde