Now a common sight on dinner tables and in supermarket fridges, chickens have not always been considered food, and for centuries were celebrated and even worshipped, new research suggests.
Rice farming is likely to be linked to the start of a process that led to chickens becoming one of the world’s most numerous animals, the findings indicate.
Researchers have also found evidence that chickens were initially regarded as exotica, and it was not until centuries later that they started to be used as a source of food.
The new research suggests previous studies which claimed chickens were domesticated up to 10,000 years ago in China, Southeast Asia or India, and were present in Europe over 7,000 years ago, were wrong.
Instead it indicates 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 animals that resulted in chickens.
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.”
This domestication process was under way by around 1,500 BC in the Southeast Asia peninsula.
The findings suggest 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, experts say.
Several of the earliest chickens are buried alone and un-butchered, and many are also found buried with people – males were often with cockerels and females with hens, studies have found.
Researchers from around the world analysed chicken remains found in more than 600 sites in 89 countries.
They examined the skeletons, burial location and historical records 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 Roman Empire then helped to popularise chickens and eggs as food, the research suggests.
For example, in Britain, chickens were not regularly consumed until the third century AD, mostly in urban and military sites.
The researchers also established the age of 23 of the proposed earliest chickens found in western Eurasia and north-west Africa, and found that most of the bones were far more recent than previously thought.
They say the findings dispel claims of chickens in Europe before the first millennium BC and indicate 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.
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 Ophelie Lebrasseur, from the CNRS/Universite 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.”
The two studies are published in the journals Antiquity and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
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