A Brief History of Chickens

In the future, chicken bones could be the geological signature of the times that we live in. Billions of bones are thrown into landfills every year where they mummify and fossilize — for future geologists and archaeologists to dig up. And it’s an entirely human-driven process.

Although the history of the modern chicken, growing too fast to even support its own weight, is only traced back to the 1950s, the history of chicken-human relations is much longer. Bones associated with chickens first appear in the archaeological record of Asia around 8,000 years ago.

But an ambitious study might just change that history. Researchers now know that chickens were domesticated later than anybody thought, only 3,500 years ago.

How did 5,000 years of human-chicken history just suddenly disappear?

Grave of bones

When archaeologists dig around the world they essentially unearth dead peoples’ junk. This might sound rough, but for every golden treasure there are thousands of useless relics.

Not useless to archaeologists, of course, who can use it to reconstruct lives long gone and societies long extinct, but useless to those who threw the relic away in the first place.

And among these worthless relics are thousands of bones. After the meat’s been gnawed away, the bones are left to decompose on their own. This sometimes takes thousands of years, and occassionally a bone might fossilize, providing researchers with a unique window into the past.

These bones are dated and analyzed. Zooarchaeologists are experts at looking at animal bones and concluding which species they belonged to. And so, after some time, we end up with thousands of chicken bones in the archaeological record, dating from thousands of years old to the chicken thigh I threw out yesterday.

Well, the last one’s technically not part of the archaeological record yet, but you get the gist.

By noting when chickens begin to turn up in human settlements, archaeologists are able to accurately assess when chickens were domesticated.

And the answer is between 8,000 and 11,000 years ago in Northern China or Pakistan. Or rather, it used to be.

When dates are not set in stone

Of course, dating chicken bones as they occassionally turn up and then forgetting about them isn’t a fool-proof method. And by rigorously reevaluating the ages of chicken bones from more than 600 different sites, palaeoanatomist Joris Peters from the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich and bioarchaeologist Greger Larson from the University of Oxford, along with several other researchers, have shaved off thousands of years from the history of domestic chickens.

Either the bones were dated incorrectly and were, in fact, younger than believed, or the bones didn’t belong to chickens.

So when and where did the domestic chicken originate? Ban Non Wat in central Thailand around 3,650-3,250 years ago. And at first, the chicken wasn’t domesticated delibaretely. In fact, it must’ve been an irritating pest for the Thailand farmers.

Charles Darwin believed that the red junglefowl was the closest ancestor of domestic chickens because they look almost identical. Now, genetics have proven him right and the archaeological evidence has allowed researchers to zone in on the initial domestication 3,500 years ago in central Thailand. Image: Jason Thompson.

Chicken and rice

Genetics reveal that the modern chicken evolved from the South Asian red jungle fowl, specifically the species Gallus gallus spaedicus, less than 7500 years ago.

Interestingly, rice seems to be the reason that chickens stopped living as wild fowls and became domestic birds.

Peters and his fellow researchers suggest the following process of domestication: Across South Asia, rice and millet was introduced around 2,000 BCE, and with the rice production, forest were cleared and secondary vegetation that are more conductive to the jungle fowl appeared. Since red jungle fowls are known to eat rice today, it’s likely that they also did so 3,000 years ago. As these birds continued nibbling rice, the populations would’ve grown, accommodated by rice farmers who must’ve realized that these fowl made for a delicious and nutritious meal.

Essentially, human rice fields fed red jungle fowl who in turn fed people. Selective pressure for plumper, domestic and less aggressive birds created the cocktail needed for the evolutionary progression from wild fowl to domestic bird.

And once chickens had been domesticated in South Asia, they were spread across the continent with rice farming, eventually reaching Europe and Africa.

Chicken and rice isn’t just a delicious meal no matter the variation, it’s the epitome of the human-chicken relation and has been so for the past 3,500 years.

A future for chickens?

But ever since industrial innovations allowed a rapid escalation of the chicken industry in the 1950s, the biology of one of the world’s favourite proteins has changed significantly.

Broiler chickens are any chicken meant for meat consumption. The reality of their lives, from hatching to the cooler disk, can be gruelling.

Consequently, some are calling for an end or change to the industrial system which produces chickens. Chickens deserve proper lives, they argue, something that the current industry standard is systematically robbing them of. This is a complex issue, however.

On the one hand, changing from cheap, intensively-raised chickens to organic ones could alleviate several of the welfare issues surrounding the chicken industry. Organic chickens simply meet a higher standard with regards to welfare.

But as we soar towards 10 billion people worldwide, feeding everybody on organic produce is an unrealistic prospect. It would require either massive deforestation or complete conversion to vegetarianism. The first is undesirable if we are to fix the current biodiversity crisis (and keep CO2 levels down through woodlands, alpine or Amazonian) whilst the second is simply just unrealistic — although commendable.

The future of chickens are uncertain. It’s likely they will still play a role in human food consumption, just like they have for the past 3,500 years. Exactly what that role will be, however, is entirely up to us.

Feature image: PumpkinSky.

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