The True History of the Chicken

When did the chicken spread to the West – and when did it become appreciated not only as a fighter but as a foodstuff? A new study debunks pretty much all previous work

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
A cage-free chicken is shown while inside a facility in Lakeside, California.
A cage-free chicken is shown while inside a facility in Lakeside, California.Credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Chicken soup. Some swear by it as a panacea to cure almost all ills. In fact, chicken soup can’t cure much beyond a yen for chicken soup. But given the entrenchment of the legend about the soup’s qualities, it might surprise some that the bird arrived in the West much later than had been thought. Furthermore, when it did, the chicken was not considered to be food but an exotic, belligerent entertainment.

The true history of the chicken is presented for our delectation in the journal of Antiquity and simultaneously in PNAS.

The chicken is indigenous to the East but is today on tables worldwide. But it turns out that our understanding of the chicken’s arrival in the West has been skewed by misdating. The snag has been their not being discovered in their correct archaeological contexts: they tend to be way younger than first thought, says a new paper by Julia Best of Britain’s Bournemouth University, Naomi Sykes of the University of Exeter and a long list of colleagues.

In fact, three-quarters of all historic chicken bones suggested as evidence for the early arrival of the chicken are shown to be significantly younger, the new paper states. The researchers smelled a rat (that probably would have tasted like chicken) and retested the age of the bones using radiocarbon-14 dating.

A cage-free chicken in California.Credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

Spring chickens?

Let us start this tale in Asia, where human burials with chickens appeared in China 3,100 years ago and in Thailand 2,800 years ago. The dating of these remains has yet to be revisited. There is also a chicken corpse identified from a 2,900-year-old tomb that isn’t verified. But things can get sticky when we get to verification, and it seems the chicken reached the West much, much later than had been thought.

Thus, for example, one chicken bone supposedly from Neolithic Bulgaria turned out to be 5,000 years younger than its supposed age based on archaeological stratigraphy, the new paper explains.

Ditto the chicken bones supposedly from Bronze Age Tiryns and Iron Age Morocco. Two Turkish specimens also expected to be ancient turned out to be from the 13th century. How embarrassing.

Of 23 “ancient” chicken bones in Europe that the team retested, only five were consistent with their reported stratigraphic layers, the authors cluck-cluck.

So, when did the chicken we know and love to eat, Gallus gallus domesticus, spread through Eurasia and henceforth to Europe?

They reached Europe only in the first millennium B.C.E., and the time lag between their arrival and consumption indicates that they were not considered flying food. Nor were they likely pets per se. They were exotica – rare birds that wouldn’t be relegated to the table.

While some chickens can be startlingly beautiful, likely the initial attraction was the sheer unpleasantness of the cocks. In other words, the attraction lay in pitting the males against one another in bloody battles, and consumption of the egg and the bird itself might wait centuries to become entrenched.

Moreover, before this paper it had been assumed that if one finds the articulated corpse of a chicken, then the bird had not been torn limb from limb and had not been eaten, but died of other causes and its age would likely be true to the archaeological record. Would it not be so? It would not. The Iron Age whole chicken from Winklebury turned out to be post-medieval.

Road crossing ahead

All in all, the team found no evidence for chickens in Europe before the first millennium B.C.E. They certainly found no evidence for what they call an “autochthonous Holocene population of junglefowl” in Eastern Europe.

Nor did they find evidence to back claims that the chicken had reached North Africa (Mogador, Morocco) in the seventh century B.C.E.; the evidence suggests that they did reach the Horn of Africa by the ninth to sixth century B.C.E., but after that their spread through the continent was slow. The team does not suggest when they might have reached Morocco, but does point to (unsupported) opinions suggesting dates between the first century B.C.E. and the medieval period.

An illustration of a cockfight between two roosters.Credit: Carole Raddato

What about ancient Rome, which left for posterity recipes for chicken stews and soups? What about ancient Greece, where roosters were reportedly revered, albeit for their foul tempers?

The new dates suggest that chickens reached Italy about 2,800 years ago and it could be said that recipes speak for themselves. Both the ancient Romans and Greeks doted on fighting birds, even if it was considered a rather déclassé pastime. As for the earlier period, in 2019 archaeologists analyzing garbage in Jerusalem from the Babylonian period around 2,600 years ago found eggshells.

Were roosters at that time exploited for entertainment? Yes. But the archaeologists suggest that in contrast to the assumption that chickens were basically feathered gladiators and no more, in Babylonian-era Jerusalem their eggs were also eaten and, presumably, the eggs’ parents as well.

Chicken noodle soup,Credit: Moving Moment / Shutterstock.com

In fact, it would only be then – or even a bit later, 2,600 to 2,500 years ago – that chickens crossed the road into Bulgaria: Chickens were on board ships from the Etruscan and Phoenician age, plying the briny of the Mediterranean, the researchers suspect. They reached central Europe and Britain, and the Spanish Balearic Islands. And it would take another thousand years for the chicken, which likes a nice warm climate, to be brought presumably against its chickenly will into the colder territories of Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland.

Today, the bird is not rare and is not revered. Soup made of its bones will not cure what ails you, but it is considered very tasty.

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