The real chicken mystery has nothing to do with whether the egg came first. Scientists would like to know when, where and how a jungle bird teamed up with human farmers to start the path that eventually led to the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.
The more bioarchaeologists and evolutionary biologists delve into the chicken’s deep past, the more complex its history becomes and the harder it is to imagine a time when they weren’t food. But recently, scientists have reconstructed a past in which birds, descendants of the red fowl of the jungle, were first seen by humans as wondrous and exotic, then sometimes sacrificed to ancient gods and sometimes revered as symbols of status.
The details of when and where the chicken was domesticated were debatable. The picture that had emerged was of early domestication 8,000 years ago or more, possibly in China, India or Southeast Asia. But a pair of companion articles published Monday in the journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and antiquity offered an updated origin story, relating the emergence of the domestic chicken to 3,500 years ago in what is now Thailand.
The reports also offer a new hypothesis for how domestication occurred. Researchers say the earliest archaeological evidence of domesticated chickens coincides with the advent of rice and millet cultivation in dry fields that attract jungle birds, bringing them out of the forest into regular contact with people.
Together, the reports argue for a “comprehensive reassessment of chickens” and demonstrate “how flawed our understanding of when and where chicken domestication was,” said domestication and nutrition expert Greger Larson. DNA at Oxford University. who was the author of the two journals.
In the Acts report, researchers reassessed evidence from more than 600 sites in 89 countries and found the first domesticated chicken fossils at a Stone Age site, Ban Non Wat, in central Thailand. The bones were around 3,500 years old.
The study also found that the chickens spread west into Africa with maritime traders from Southeast Asia, and then eventually north into Europe. Previous estimates of chickens reaching Europe 7,000 years ago did not hold up. Instead, researchers estimate that chickens reached southern Europe 2,800 years ago. It took hundreds of years to reach more northern regions and a full millennium to reach Scandinavia and Scotland.
Joris Peters of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, author of the paper in Proceedings, said the study “rewrites the origins and history of poultry farming”.
The ancient report was based on radiocarbon dating of 23 chicken bone samples from North Africa and Europe, many of which had previously been studied. It showed that three quarters of the fossils had been wrongly dated. In some cases, such as a case in Morocco, remains of modern chickens (from 1950 or later) had been dated to the Iron Age.
Julia Best, author of the report, said that with radiocarbon dating rather than geological and archaeological methods, “we now have the clearest picture yet of our earliest interactions with chickens”.
Some patterns of how the ancients treated chickens became clear with the method. In Britain and at European Iron Age sites, researchers have found adult chickens buried alone with no signs of butchery, one even with a healed leg fracture, which suggested humane care.
It seems that humans did not start by eating the birds, but by admiring their charismatic and exotic presence. As the chicken spread around the world with extraordinary speed, every human group seemed to treat it with respect.
Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter in England and author of the two articles, said: “For centuries chickens have been celebrated and revered. It was only later that we started eating it regularly.
Even when birds have arrived in a new place, evidence suggests that it took a few hundred years of living with chickens to get to know them well enough to start eating them regularly. When the Romans invaded Britain, they ate the birds, unlike the British.
As we now know, familiarity eventually spawned McNuggets and a vast global industry that produced tens of billions of chickens for consumption. The company has also sparked outrage from activists concerned about animal welfare and spawned research programs aimed at removing the animal from the equation and moving straight to skinless, boneless protein plates grown in laboratory.
Olivier Hanotte, an animal genomics specialist at the University of Nottingham in England and the International Livestock Research Institute, said the papers provided a “very good analysis of all the data”. Dr Hanotte, who recently participated in an analysis of chicken ancestry with Dr Larson and others but did not participate in either of the two new papers, said the latest studies have shown that the domestication of chickens Chickens was newer and spread very quickly. the world. “So we really shouldn’t say that domestication was that old.”
However, he was not completely convinced by the domestication hypothesis proposed in the paper, which the authors said would require further research to be confirmed. He said that in many societies children kept wild animals as pets. It could have been a precursor to domestication, he said, and would leave few traces.
Dr Larson said the new hypothesis was valuable because ideas about domestication have too often focused on human actions and intentions. First, he said, researchers need to look for a situation in which animals derive some benefit from association with humans.
The authors said the pattern of dry rice cultivation present in Thailand 3,500 years ago, with large productive, fallow fields and bordering thickets, may have been a better niche for jungle poultry than rice paddies. irrigated fields common in other regions.
“And that kickstarts this relationship,” Dr. Larson said.