Whence chickens?

When I talk about changing our relationship with the rest of the biosphere, I often think of mutualistic relationships we’ve formed with other species over the years. The domestication of dogs is the most famous example, but we’ve formed relationships with all sorts of plants and animals over the millennia, and all of them about at different times, in different ways. I think it would be a bit much even for me to claim that understanding the origin of our relationship with chickens is somehow an important part of our fight for a better world. That said, I do think it’s fascinating to hear about how we got to where we are today.

Which brings us to this most important of questions: Whence chickens?

Earth is currently inhabited by tens of millions of chickens, almost all of whom spend their short lives in horrific conditions, because that’s the cheapest way to mass produce dead chickens, which are generally acknowledged to be delicious, if handled correctly. I think it’s also worth noting that the industrialization of animal agriculture is not how things have to be done. I think my favorite example was at the home of a Quaker in Cuba, who’d turned his yard into a tiny food forest, filled with edible plants (and maybe some medicinal ones? I don’t remember.), and a handful of very relaxed chickens. They had comfortable lives in a pleasant garden, and the humans got eggs out of the bargain. This seems to be pretty close to how we’ve interacted with chickens for most of our history with them.

New research transforms our understanding of the circumstances and timing of the domestication of chickens, their spread across Asia into the west, and reveals the changing way in which they were perceived in societies over the past 3,500 years.

Experts have found that an association with rice farming likely started a process that has led to chickens becoming one of the world’s most numerous animals. They have also found evidence that chickens were initially regarded as exotica, and only several centuries later used as a source of ‘food’.

Previous efforts have claimed that chickens were domesticated up to 10,000 years ago in China, Southeast Asia, or India, and that chickens were present in Europe over 7,000 years ago.

The new studies show this is wrong, and that the driving force behind chicken domestication was the arrival of dry rice farming into southeast Asia where their wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl, lived. Dry rice farming acted as a magnet drawing wild jungle fowl down from the trees, and kickstarting a closer relationship between people and the jungle fowl that resulted in chickens.

This domestication process was underway by around 1,500 BC in the Southeast Asia peninsula. The research suggests that chickens were then transported first across Asia and then throughout the Mediterranean along routes used by early Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician maritime traders.

During the Iron Age in Europe, chickens were venerated and generally not regarded as food. The studies have shown that several of the earliest chickens are buried alone and un-butchered, and many are also found buried with people. Males were often buried with cockerels and females with hens. The Roman Empire then helped to popularise chickens and eggs as food. For example, in Britain, chickens were not regularly consumed until the third century AD, mostly in urban and military sites.

I had no idea about any of this. I think if you asked me yesterday where chickens came from, I probably would have guessed that there were a number of related species of galliform fowl that were domesticated in different places around the world. I also would have guessed that chickens had always been raised for a mixture of egg production and meat.

I would not have predicted that people would be buried with them.

But I feel like I should have. Look at our history with other domesticated species. Cats, dogs, food plants – for as long as we’ve had burial ceremonies, we’ve buried our dead with things that were important in their lives, and a sociable animal that converts insects and seeds into an easily accessible source of protein? That’s pretty high up there in terms of importance.

I think the absurd abundance of food available in rich countries (though not so much for poor people in those countries) has led us to devalue the organisms from which we get our food. I’m nowhere close to the first person to have this thought. It’s been around for at least as long as capitalism, and possibly as long as big cities have been a thing. So, I hear me ask, how did the researchers go about figuring this out? Good question, me.

The international team of experts re-evaluated chicken remains found in more than 600 sites in 89 countries. They examined the skeletons, burial location and historical records regarding the societies and cultures where the bones were found. The oldest bones of a definite domestic chicken were found at Neolithic Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, and date to between 1,650 and 1,250 BC.

The team also used radiocarbon dating to establish the age of 23 of the proposed earliest chickens found in western Eurasia and north-west Africa. Most of the bones were far more recent than previously thought. The results dispel claims of chickens in Europe before the first millennium BC and indicate that they did not arrive until around 800 BC. Then, after arriving in the Mediterranean region, it took almost 1,000 years longer for chickens to become established in the colder climates of Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland.

Again, this may be my modern perspective, but there’s something very funny to me about an international team of experts carefully evaluating ancient chicken remains. I really hope Gary Larson is aware of this work, because I think he’d get a kick out of it.

Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, said: “Eating chickens is so common that people think we have never not eaten them. Our evidence shows that our past relationship with chickens was far more complex, and that for centuries chickens were celebrated and venerated.”

Professor Greger Larson, from the University of Oxford, said: “This comprehensive re-evaluation of chickens firstly demonstrates how wrong our understanding of the time and place of chicken domestication was. 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.”

Dr Julia Best, from Cardiff University said: “This is the first time that radiocarbon dating has been used on this scale to determine the significance of chickens in early societies. 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.”

Professor Joris Peters, from LMU Munich and the Bavarian State Collection of Palaeoanatomy, said: “With their overall highly adaptable but essentially cereal-based diet, sea routes played a particularly important role in the spread of chickens to Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe.”

Dr Ophélie Lebrasseur, from the CNRS/Université Toulouse Paul Sabatier and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano, said: “The fact that chickens are so ubiquitous and popular today, and yet were domesticated relatively recently is startling. Our research highlights the importance of robust osteological comparisons, secure stratigraphic dating and placing early finds within their broader cultural and environmental context.”

We’re at a point in history where we’re about to be forced to change a lot of things about how we interact with food. The current model of industrialized animal agriculture is not only cruel, it’s unsustainable. I know I said I wouldn’t claim that this research is essential to our fight for a better world, but I think that it is useful for us remember the ways in which our relationship with “livestock” has been different over the centuries.

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  1. says

    We used to have poultry in our garden for most of my childhood. The animals were eventually butchered and eaten, but before that, they had more pleasant lives than many people. I am not a vegetarian or vegan, I do not oppose eating meat or using animal-based products. But I do think that there should be strong and enforced laws about animal welfare. We cannot change the reality that any functioning ecosystem has to have predation, but we are the only predator in the world that has a choice about how to treat their prey.

  2. Katydid says

    I agree 100% with Charly. I differ only that I did not have chickens ever in my life, but I have a number of friends who raise them. It is completely possible to raise a flock of chickens that have a pretty good life, even on a farm. One friend had about 200 chickens at the peak of her chicken-raising, and during the day they had access to all the fields with beef cows, horses, and sheep (different fields for each). At night they had several secure chicken wagons–the chickens really do “return home to roost”.

    “Pastured” chickens are completely possible in the USA and their eggs are better because of the chicken having access to fresh air, sunshine, bugs, worms, and grass. The meat is better, too–firmer because the chickens ran around in nature and didn’t breathe in the dirt of the factory farm sheds.

  3. Katydid says

    A note about factory farming and false economy:

    One scene I will never forget was one bright Saturday morning when I was at the farm, helping my friend in her little on-farm store where she sold her eggs, chickens, etc. A woman came in with one of those huge crapa-frappa-whipped cream coffee nightmare drinks. She wanted eggs, and she threw a fit that a dozen eggs from pastured chickens cost $4. Chickens are little and need a lot of hands-on care: they need access to water, shade from the sun, and a steady source of food–my friend supplemented pasture findings with a premium chicken feed. My friend pointed out that the sugary coffee-caramel treat cost $6, but for $4 she was offering 12 eggs with real nutrition–protein, vitamins D and E, healthy Omega 3 fats, no carbs. Instead of paying 6 for sugar and fat, for about a dollar, she could have a filling, 3-egg omelette or scrambled or fried eggs. The woman left, offended.

  4. says

    I have a fantasy of some day being able to afford a place where I can set up an experimental garden. I really want to try having a small number of chickens in a movable run that I can put on fallow garden patches.

    Basically, I want to mess around with permaculture and stuff.

  5. Katydid says

    Sounds like a great plan! Chickens are pretty hardy (just keep them away from predators) and they eat garden scraps just like a pig would. They love watermelon rinds.

  6. kestrel says

    I had read somewhere – in my extensive chicken library, which is kind of embarrassing – that it was thought chickens (roosters, actually) were initially prized for their **voices**, not their fighting ability. However since I can’t find the reference right now, I’m not sure how that conclusion was reached, and it’s always possible this is new information that supersedes what I’ve got.

    One issue we have is space. You can’t have free-range chickens if you live in an apartment in the city. In my lifetime I’ve seen cities swallow up chicken farms like they were nothing. At some point we’re going to need to pay attention to that: Sure, it’s cool that the farmer down the road just got a zillion bucks for selling the land they were raising chickens (and corn, and beef, and hay) on for a new subdivision, but I hope that at some point we get that we need land to grow food and trees. Right now it seems what we most prize is money. Money’s great, I guess, but as they say, there is not enough in it to fry an egg…

  7. Katydid says

    A huge problem right now among farmers is who is going to take over. My friends are all front-half Gen X and wearing out. The Millennials want no part of farm life, and neither does Gen Z so far. So if your kids don’t want to farm and you can’t find anyone else to do it, what do you do when you physically *can’t* farm anymore? Sell the land.

  8. says

    @Katydid – Yeah. Capitalism seems designed to make the most important professions as unrewarding as possible. Personally I think part of our big change should involve training people who currently work in destructive or pointless jobs to do things like help run indoor farms and the like.

  9. Jazzlet says

    One way that our relations with chickens has changed over my lifetime (I’m 61) is that they have gone from a luxury meat to the cheapest meat if you don’t buy ethicallly. When I was a child there were at least eight or nine sat down to the Saturday roast – we didn’t do Sunday roast because we went to church Sunday morning – which was most ofteen lamb or beef, chicken was a very rare treat. And it was chicken singular for all those people allbeit some of us were little kids, but some of us were teenage boys so I think that balances out. The chicken was stretched with stuffing made from sausagemeat cooked in the cavity, so no more than could fit there, and you were asked “white or dark?”, you didn’t get both. After all of the sliceable meat and the stuffing was eaten the carcass would be stripped, the bones went to stock, then that along with the scraps of meat, mushrooms and IIRC green peppers was used to make a sort of chicken fried rice for Monday night. We were certainly not poor, but food was in relation to now far more expensive, especially proteins, cheese and in particular meat – those were the main protein choices at home, fish pie was another very occasional option, and I didn’t come across soya ‘meats’ until I went to university.

    Anyway the point of all that is that meat (and cheese) need to become expensive again so that the animals can be raised in good conditions, but also and related so we eat less, while using all of the animal that is edible.

  10. Katydid says

    There are a number of farmers who have written books. Shannon Hayes is one author–her family farm follows sustainable practices. She writes that the true cost of a chicken should run about $5/pound for the amount of time and effort it takes to raise them. In other words, those huge rotisserie chickens for $4.99 each were not raised humanely.

    Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm is another such farmer. It’s well worth reading what he has to write. He pioneered teaching about pasture rotation and humane slaughter.

    A humanely-raised chicken is interesting. Some are jerks, some are curious, some are friendly. My friend has a specially-fitted truck come to her house for slaughter–the chickens run free in their home yard until about a minute before they’re killed, and they’re killed very quickly and humanely. THIS IS NOT CHEAP. It was quite a learning experience for me to hand over my “favorite” of her chickens to the truck…and 10 minutes later, get handed the beheaded, cleaned, plucked carcass. Knowing where your food come from, realizing that your dinner was once a living, breathing, feeling creature and your choices guided its death…that’s very powerful.

    I also met the cows whose processed beef I bought, but since cows can’t be processed on-farm in my state, it was more removed.

  11. says

    I recently saw research indicating that my prior belief in the “complete protein” thing, which made animal protein seem like the better option, is bullshit. I’ll do a post on it soon, but at this point I’m weaning myself off of meat in favor of beans and the like.

    Basically I want meat to still be available, but more as a “once or twice a month” kind of thing (except for those who actually do require it to live). It’s something that should be more expensive, but only after we’ve ensured that adequate alternatives are available, and cheap.

    I feel like that approach would make it much more feasible for people to do things like raise a few chickens, or for small farmers to meet the needs of their communities.

  12. Katydid says

    I do not do well AT ALL on a vegetarian diet. Tried it with dietician supervision, wrecked my health. So I do the next best thing by only buying responsibly-raised meat.

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