Long Before Chickens Were Dinners, They Were Our Pals

These potential spiritual guides only became dinner about 2K years ago, research suggests
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 11, 2022 2:50 PM CDT
Humans Revered Chickens for Centuries Before Eating Them
A seller prepares freshly butchered chickens at the Kampung Baru wet market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 31, 2022.   (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Chickens and humans have only been mingling for about 3,500 years, not as long as 10,000 years as previously believed, and for a good chunk of that time our feathered friends were revered, not eaten. That's according to new archaeological research which sees chickens as "actually a relatively new addition to our farms," per the Guardian. Modern chickens descended from tree-dwelling birds in the tropical jungles of southeast Asia, known as red junglefowl. To determine when they became domesticated, authors of a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences re-evaluated chicken remains discovered at more than 600 sites in 89 countries.

Radiocarbon dating indicated the oldest remains of a domesticated chicken came from Thailand's Ban Non Wat. The animal lived between 1650 BC and 1250 BC, which coincided with the advent of dry rice farming in the region. Essentially, researchers believe rice proved too great a temptation for chicken to remain in the jungles and out of regular contact with humans. But research suggests they were domesticated locally not for food but simply because they were exotic. Indeed, chickens were revered for centuries after domestication, even as they spread across Asia, later throughout the Mediterranean region, and eventually into southern Europe around 800 BC, researchers say.

A companion study published Monday in the journal Antiquity—which backs up the new timeframe, finding 18 of 23 previously studied chicken remains from North Africa and Europe were wrongly dated to earlier periods—highlights Iron Age sites where whole chickens were buried, sometimes with humans, including one "with a healed leg fracture," the New York Times reports. It's possible they were viewed as spiritual guides, study author Julia Best of Cardiff University tells New Scientist. It wasn't until the Roman Empire that chickens began to be treated as food, according to the research. As the Times reports, Romans were eating chicken when they invaded Britain around 55 BC, though "Britons were not." (More chicken stories.)

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