Murder Most Fowl: Chickens in Antiquity Lived Longer Than Today’s Birds

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Why did the chicken cross the road?
Why did the chicken cross the road?Credit: Andrew A Smith
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Chickens are delicious: roasted, fried or barbecued. Pretty much the only way they’re objectionable meal-wise is when they’re undercooked. But we seem to have discovered the bird’s culinary charms relatively belatedly.

New evidence shows that chickens living from the Iron Age to the Roman and Saxon periods in the UK apparently lived two to four years, compared with, all too often, mere months today. But that longevity in ancient Britain is still a far cry from how long a chicken can live, with a little care.

The report on the relative longevity of fowl was published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Separate research has shown that in the Classical period and ancient Levant, the species in question was bred chiefly for the purposes not of cooking, but for the blood-sport of cockfighting and possibly ritual as well, which doesn’t necessarily mean the birds were being sacred themselves, or worshipped. At least in some cases it meant they were sacrificed to the deities that were being worshipped, which were not chickens.

In other words, if chickens in days long gone were cultivated solely or even mainly for eating purposes, they’d likely not have survived as much as four years. Today’s chickens are usually slaughtered between the age of 33 to 81 days, the authors say – that’s one month to less than three months.

But an unmolested chicken can live at least six years and even more than a decade, though it probably won’t. The odd chicken may even live more than two decades, as did Muffy, the record-breaking Muffed American Game hen. Her story is like 30-plus-year-old cats: rare. Another famous case was Matilda the performing chicken, who hatched in 1990 and lived 16 years, 10 of them as a magician’s prop.

Chicken: Sam, a Silver-Spangled Hamburg.Credit: Ospr3yy
This is MatildaCredit: Alvin Atlas, DVM
Muffy the Chicken on Jay LenoCredit: YouTube

From this, we understand that the chickens of ancient Britain did die prematurely, but not as prematurely as if they had been bred mainly for food, it seems.

Before asking what they were being bred for, if not for the pot – how does one know how old chickens were when they died thousands of years ago?

With animals that have teeth, one may estimate age going by their dental state of wear and decay. Chicken arose from terrifying lineages of ferocious fanged theropod dinosaurs. Early birds caught the worm with their teeth, but the ancestors to chickens lost their teeth more than 100 million years ago. One cannot tell a bird’s age by the wearing-down of the beak.

Ancient chicken bones used in this study Credit: Julia Best

So, for the chickens of antiquity, paleontologists developed a method based on the size of the tarsometatarsal spur, which is a feature of adult males, and which is what made cockfighting such a popular spectacle. It bears knowing that boy birds are not born with spurs; they grow with age. Among the modern flock the researchers checked, by the age of one year, only 20 percent had grown spurs. It was only by age six that all the cockerels had spurs.

Yes, this does mean that one may mistake an immature male with unimpressive claws for a female. On the other hand, once it’s growing, the spur increases in size and length and can serve to estimate age. Not all features of male chickens can be used for that.

The researchers verified the model by using it on modern cockerels of known age, and then applied it to the ancient specimens. And thus they realized that the lifespan of the chicken in ancient Britain is a fraction of what it had been in the Classic world, which was in turn a fraction of the lifespan an undisturbed fowl may enjoy.

Of the 123 samples of Iron Age, Roman and Saxon chicken bones the team tested, more than half came from birds that were more than 2 years old. About a quarter were older than 3. Again, we stress, hoary they were not.

But nor were they mere downy chicks. Dr. Sean Doherty of the University of Exeter, who led the study, explains that most of the chicken bones didn’t show evidence of butchery. In fact, they were buried whole – not as isolated bones thrown out with the trash, he explains.

And that sheds a whole other light on their truncated lives. “The study confirms the special status of these rare and highly prized birds, showing that from the Iron Age to Saxon period they were surviving well past sexual maturity. Most lived beyond a year, with many reaching the age of 2, 3 and 4 years old,” Doherty said.

It is purely ironic that today, when chickens are prized mainly because they taste somewhere between unobjectionable to wonderful, farmers prize the hen and kill the male chicks. Why? Because the males don’t lay eggs, have a propensity to intra-fowl violence, and are somehow unsuitable for meat production. Many male calves suffer the same fate, for similar reasons.

In antiquity, on the other hand, male chickens were more prized, the archaeologists think – cockerels were the preferred sex. Why? Precisely because of their propensity to intra-fowl violence. Betting on cockfighting was huge in the ancient world, especially  Greece. And although frowned on by classy Romans, they would reportedly not eschew a fling on the birds either.

Let's face it, chickens can be beautifulCredit: Sheila Hudson

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