There are more chickens than any other bird species on the planet. With three chickens each human, they are a staple food for millions of people around the world. But a new study shows that chickens were only domesticated recently and were once revered.

The question of where chickens come from and how humans have interacted with them over time has eluded us for decades. until now. For many people, it’s hard to think of chickens as anything other than food. But two new studies change our understanding of the relationship between humans and chickens.

One of our new studies has radiocarbon dated the bones of 23 of the earliest putative chickens in Europe and northwest Africato check their age. By confirming which chickens are actually ancient, we will get a clearer picture of when they arrived in these areas and how humans interacted with them. Only five the specimens matched the dates previously attributed to them by archaeologists. The remaining 18 were much younger than previously thought, sometimes by thousands of years.

Earlier hypotheses, which based their dates on contextual clues such as the location of these bones and what other artifacts they were found with, suggested that chickens were present in Europe before 7,000 years ago. But our results show that they were not introduced until about 800 BC. (2800 years ago). This shows that chickens arrived in Europe fairly recently, compared to livestock, pigs, and sheep that arrived in Britain about 6,000 years ago. The new dating also suggests that in many places time delay a few hundred years since chickens were first introduced to the area, they were actually thought of as food.

Before chickens became food for people, they were considered a special exotic.

Ancient and modern designs. Credit: Jonathan Rees/Cardiff University, courtesy of the author.

Many of early chicks identified by our radiocarbon dating are complete or nearly complete skeletons. In Britain, none of the oldest skeletons shows that they were slaughtered for human consumption. They were often old animalsburied alone in the pits. One specimen even had a well-healed broken leg, which is evidence of human care. She was also still able to lay eggs: inside her skeleton was a substance called medullary bone, which is formed during the production of eggs.

These clues suggest that these early arrivals in northern Europe were thought to be a source of food rather than a source of food. special exoticespecially given their small numbers at the time.

In some places, shortly after the appearance of chickens, we find them buried with people. A new overview of the British Late Iron Age and Roman burials with chickens indicates that these burial rites were often gendered, with males buried with cockerels and females with hens. The chickens may have been placed in human graves as “psycho-pomps” whose role was to guide human souls to the afterlife. Such a role would be consistent with their association with Mercury (the Roman god of communication and travel). Large numbers of cockerels were sacrificed to Mercury at temples such as the Beehive, Gloucestershire. In other cases, the chickens in the graves were food. This is a practice that became more common in Britain during the Roman period.

It is clear that the relationship between man and chicken was difficult and about more than just food for quite some time, even after they began to venture onto the dining table.

So where did these special birds first come from?

До того, как куры стали пищей для людей, они считались особой экзотикой.

Calibrated radiocarbon results for each sample, with previous suggested dates in parentheses. Credit: AntiquityAuthor provided

From jungle to fields

Recent DNA analyzes chickens have been confirmed to have been domesticated from a red jungle subspecies called Gallus gallus spadiceus who lived in South or Southeast Asia. This means that the chickens were domesticated within this vast region.

So far, there have been three main hypotheses about place and time. The first places of domestication about 4000 years ago in indus valley. The second claims that this happened in Southeast Asia over 8000 years ago. The third sees its origin in northern China 10,000 years ago.

But these theories do not take into account the decisive factors. These include: dating uncertainties, skeletal similarities between chickens and other native wild species, and the broader cultural and ecological context.

In a second new study, our team overestimated identification of the species, home status and dating of the oldest documented chicken bones from over 600 archaeological sites in 89 countries on four continents. We found that all three hypotheses are incorrect. The oldest bones now confidently attributed to domestic chickens come from the Neolithic site of Ban Non Wat in central Thailand and date back to about 3,500 years ago – much later than previously thought.

Before chickens became food for people, they were considered a special exotic.

An Iron Age chicken skeleton from Weston Down, England. Credit: Julia Best and Grace Clark.

While uncertainty remains as to why chickens were domesticated, one thing seems to have brought chickens and humans closer together: rice. The introduction of dry rice cultivation in central Thailand coincides with the date of the oldest chicken remains. This suggests that a new type of farming may have been the catalyst for the process of domestication.

Clearing the jungle for crops would create comfortable environment for red jungle chicken. At the same time, newly grown rice along with milletwould have drawn the wild jungles into close contact with humans, setting in motion a process of domestication, after which their chicken descendants were dispersed throughout the world along with human societies.

New data on when, where and how chickens were domesticated

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