The household of the chicken, a once revered animal, is much newer than we thought

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The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is the most common domestic animal on the planet, producing increasing amounts of meat and eggs. It is then normal to assume that they were domesticated primarily as a food source. However, there is little evidence to support this hypothesis, and despite its global economic and cultural significance, the chicken’s ancient history is poorly understood. New studies shed more light on the circumstances and timing of the domestication of chickens, its spread across Asia to the West, and reveal the evolution of the interaction between humans and chickens. Over the last 3,500 years, going from being an honored animal to being a food. animals.

The modern chicken is not considered a particularly charismatic species, although it still refers to Gaul, and the rooster sits as an emblem during ceremonies in France, or on top of buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris, before the fire. France breeds 500 million broilers and 47 million laying hens each year, with each Frenchman consuming 26 kg of chicken a year. This animal has become the most widespread bird in the world with 22.7 billion heads in 2018. In 2016, 66 billion of the 70 billion land animals slaughtered to feed us were chickens, according to The RoyalSociety magazine.

Despite this significance, the timing and circumstances of their domestication as well as their subsequent spread remain unclear and controversial. These uncertainties are mainly due to the lack of archaeological remains, and more specifically excavation and salvage disturbances, fauna identification and dating. For example, excavations that do not consistently use fine sieving are unlikely to restore chicken bones. Not to mention that when bird remains are recovered, reliable identification is not always possible. This is because chicken bones are difficult to distinguish from other related galliform species.

That’s why an international team of researchers wanted to fill in the gaps in the history of chicken taming and its spread throughout the world. The two studies, published in journals Antiquity and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USAwas conducted by researchers from Exeter, Munich, Cardiff, Oxford, Bournemouth, Toulouse and universities and institutes in Germany, France and Argentina.

Newer domestication than previously thought

Previous studies have claimed that chickens were domesticated over 10,000 years ago in China, Southeast Asia and even India; and would have been present in Europe for over 7000 years. However, these data are controversial and are not unanimous in the scientific world. To establish a robust spatial and temporal framework for their origin and spread, the international team first re-evaluated chicken remains found at more than 600 locations in 89 countries. She examined the skeletons, burial site, and historical records relating to the communities and cultures in which the bones were found. Next, the researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of 23 “presumed” early chickens found in western Eurasia and northwestern Africa.

Distribution map of the ‘supposed’ first 23 chickens found in western Eurasia and northwestern Africa. © J. Best et al., 2022

The oldest bones of a domestic chicken were found at Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, near a human burial, and date from 1650 to 1250 BC. The authors point out that chickens were not domesticated in the Indian subcontinent and first arrived in central China, South Asia or Mesopotamia before the end of the second millennium BC, Ethiopia and Mediterranean Europe only around 800 BC. Then, after arriving in the Mediterranean, it took almost 1,000 more years for chickens to be established in the colder climates of Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland.

Dr. Ophélie Lebrasseur, of the CNRS / Université Toulouse Paul Sabatier and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano, stated in a press release: ” The fact that chickens are so ubiquitous and popular today, yet relatively recently domesticated, is surprising. Our research highlights the importance of sound osteological comparisons, safe stratigraphic dating, and the placement of early discoveries in their broader cultural and environmental context. “.

Rice, the engine for taming chicken, between veneration and food

To subsequently study the circumstances of their initial domestication, the authors correlated the temporal spread of rice and millet cultivation with the first appearance of chickens in the series of red waterfowl species (gallus gallus) – progenitor of the domestic chicken. The data highlight that agricultural practices focused on the production and storage of base grains have served to attract tree-dwelling red waterfowl into human communities.

Dry rice farming is actually the driving force behind the domestication of the chicken, enabling a closer relationship between humans and jungle birds. This process was going on around 1500 BC, on the Southeast Asian peninsula. Research suggests that chickens were then first transported across Asia and then across the Mediterranean by routes used by early Greek, Etruscan, and Phoenician maritime traders.

Professor Joris Peters, from LMU Munich and the Bavarian Paleoanatomy Collection, points out: ” With their highly adaptable but predominantly grain-based global diet, the seaways played a particularly important role in the spread of chickens to Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe. “.

During the Iron Age in Europe, chickens were revered and generally not considered food. Studies show that many of the first chickens are buried alone and not slaughtered, no trace of human food has been found. In addition, the animals were often old, with long spores for the roosters. Researchers even discovered a specimen with a well-healed fracture, suggesting humane care. Many have been found buried with their owners, explain the authors, men with roosters and women with hens, in Britain during the late Iron Age and the early Roman period. .

Chickens may have been included in human graves to “lead human souls to the afterlife.” On other occasions, the presence of chickens in graves clearly represents an offer of food, a practice that became more common in Britain during Roman times. This is how the Roman Empire helped popularize chickens and eggs as food, mainly in cities and military places.

Early chickens were rare and often buried individually, then with their owners. They subsequently became a simple food. © S. Doherty (Modified by Laurie Henry for Trust My Science)

Similarly, radiocarbon dating revealed a consistent delay between the introduction of chickens and their consumption of humans, suggesting that these animals were originally considered exotic, especially given their limited population size at the time and the fact that they were valued for their feathers, their colors. This way of valuing the chicken, at the beginning of its introduction, could explain their representation on the coins of the late Iron Age – power artifacts – recovered in southern Britain and northern France. Not to mention that they were very much into art, whether it was on ceramics or paintings.

Eventually, they are only recognized several centuries later as a source of “food”. Today, only four primitive species remain in the wild, each with a well-defined range in Asia: the Golden Rooster, the Lafayette Rooster, the Sonnerat Rooster, and the Javanese Green Rooster.

Professor Greger Larson from the University of Oxford concludes: “This comprehensive reassessment of chickens first demonstrates how deficient our understanding of when and where the chicken taming was. And even more exciting, we show how the advent of dry rice farming served as a catalyst for both the chicken taming process and its global spread. “.

Source: Antiquity and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA

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