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The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is the most common domesticated animal on the planet, providing increasing amounts of meat and eggs. It is therefore 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 importance, the ancient history of the chicken is poorly understood. New studies shed more light on the circumstances and timing of the domestication of chickens, their spread across Asia to the West, and reveal the evolution of human-chicken interaction over the past 3,500 years from a revered animal to an animal food.
The modern hen is not considered a particularly charismatic species, even though it still refers to Gaul and the rooster stands as an emblem during ceremonies in France, or on top of buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris, before the fire. France raises 500 million broilers and 47 million laying hens a year, with each Frenchman consuming 26 kilograms of chicken a year. This animal has become the most widespread bird in the world, with 22.7 billion heads in 2018. In 2016, of the 70 billion land animals slaughtered for food, 66 billion were chickens, according to The RoyalSociety magazine.
Despite this importance, the timing and circumstances of its domestication, as well as its subsequent dispersal, remain obscure and controversial. These uncertainties are mainly due to the scarcity of archaeological remains and, more specifically, to the biases of excavation and rescue, identification and dating of the fauna. For example, excavations that do not consistently use fine sieving are unlikely to recover 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 domestication and its spread around the world. The two studies, published in journals Antique and Proceedings of the US National Academy of Scienceswere carried out by academics from Exeter, Munich, Cardiff, Oxford, Bournemouth, Toulouse and universities and institutes in Germany, France and Argentina.
More recent 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 be present in Europe for over 7,000 years. But these data are controversial and not unanimous in the scientific world. In order to establish a robust spatial and temporal framework for its origins and dispersions, the international team first reassessed chicken remains found at more than 600 sites in 89 countries. She examined the skeletons, the burial site and historical records about the societies and cultures where the bones were found. Then the researchers used radiocarbon dating to establish the age of 23 “supposed” primitive chickens found in western Eurasia and northwest Africa.
The oldest bones of a domestic chicken were found at Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, near a human burial, and date back to 1650 to 1250 BC. The authors point out that chickens were not domesticated on the Indian subcontinent and did not reach central China, southern Asia, or Mesopotamia until the end of the 2nd millennium BC. , Ethiopia and Mediterranean Europe only around 800 BC. Then, after arriving in the Mediterranean region, it took nearly 1,000 years for chickens to establish themselves in the colder climates of Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland.
Ophélie Lebrasseur, from CNRS/Université Toulouse Paul Sabatier and Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano, said in a press release: “ The fact that chickens are so ubiquitous and popular today, yet domesticated relatively recently, is surprising. Our research highlights the importance of solid osteological comparisons, secure stratigraphic dating, and placing early findings in their broader cultural and environmental context. “.
Rice, engine of chicken domestication, between veneration and food
Subsequently, to 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 range of red waterfowl species.rooster rooster) — ancestor of the domestic chicken. The data highlight that agricultural practices focused on the production and storage of staple grains served to attract arboreal red waterfowl to human societies.
In fact, the cultivation of dry rice is the driving force behind the domestication of the chicken, allowing for a closer relationship between humans and jungle birds. This process was underway around 1500 BC on the Southeast Asian peninsula. Research suggests that chickens were transported first across Asia and then across the Mediterranean along routes used by early Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician sea traders.
Professor Joris Peters, from LMU Munich and the Bavarian Paleoanatomy Collection, highlights: “ With their highly adaptable but predominantly grain-based global diet, sea lanes played a particularly important role in the spread of chickens to Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe. “.
During Iron Age 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 consumption has been found. Also, the animals were often old, with long spurs for the roosters. The researchers even discovered a specimen with a well-healed leg fracture, suggesting humane care. Many are found buried with their owners, the authors explain, men with roosters and women with chickens, in Britain during the late Iron Age and early Roman period.
Chickens may have been included in human graves to “lead human souls to the afterlife”. At other times, the presence of chickens in graves clearly represents an offering 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, particularly in urban and military areas.
Likewise, radiocarbon dating has revealed a consistent lag between the introduction of chickens and their consumption by humans, suggesting that these animals were initially considered exotic, especially given their limited population size at the time and the fact that they were prized for their feathers. , their colors. This way of valuing the chicken, at the beginning of its introduction, could explain its representation on late Iron Age coins – artefacts of power – recovered in southern Britain and northern France. Not to mention that they met a lot in art, whether in ceramics or painting.
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 Java green rooster.
Professor Greger Larson of the University of Oxford concludes: “This comprehensive reassessment of chickens first demonstrates how flawed our understanding of when and where chicken domestication was. Even more exciting, we show how the arrival of dry rice cultivation acted as a catalyst for both the chicken domestication process and its global dispersal. “.