From chicken beers to khao moon gai, chicken and rice is a winning combination worldwide. But the two are more inextricably linked than even the chefs realize. Two new archaeological studies suggest that without rice, chickens may never have existed.
The work reveals that the chickens may have been domesticated thousands of years later than scientists thought, and only after humans began raising rice within the reach of wild red birds in the jungle, in Thailand or near the Southeast Asian peninsula, he said. Dale Sergentson, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton who did not participate in the study. The research, she says, “destroyed many of the gray myths about the origin of the chicken.”
Charles Darwin suggests that the chickens are descended from the red birds of the jungle – a colorful tropical bird of the pheasant family – because the two are so similar. But proving himself right was difficult. Five species of jungle birds range from India to northern China, and small chicken bones are rare in fossils.
In 2020, a study of the genome of 863 live chickens confirmed that the birds of the jungle rooster rooster spaedicus the subspecies is the ancestor of live chickens; chickens share more of their DNA with this subspecies than other species of jungle birds. This in turn narrows the domestication site to Southeast Asia. Researchers have suggested fossils such as early chickens, dating from 8,000 to 11,000 years ago in northern China and Pakistan. But the genetics of live birds can’t narrow the window for domestication, says geneticist Ming-Shan Wang, a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the first author of the genetic study. And they have not been able to obtain enough ancient DNA from fossil chickens to determine the exact date. So paleoanatomist Joris Peters of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich teamed up with Gregor Larson, a bioarchaeologist at Oxford University who is an expert on animal domestication. The duo organized an international team that began a comprehensive reassessment of chicken bones, their dates and records on them from more than 600 archeological sites around the world. In a separate study, the group directly dated chicken bones found in Western Eurasia and North Africa.
They found that the oldest bones of probable chickens come from a place called Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, where farmers raised rice from 3,250 to 3,650 years ago, the team said today. Notices of the National Academy of Sciences. Farmers buried many skeletons of young members of the family Galus as grave goods along with other domesticated animals – strong evidence that these birds were domesticated chickens, not wild birds of the jungle. Researchers suggest that rice seeds attracted wild birds from the jungle to rice fields, where the birds nested in thickets at the end of the fields and became accustomed to humans.
While researchers traced chicken bones in Asia to the Middle East and Africa, they found a “striking” link between the spread of dried rice, millet and other grains – and the emergence of chickens. The chickens appeared about 3,000 years ago in northern China and India, the team found, and about 2,800 years ago in the Middle East and Northeast Africa. The team claims that studies finding earlier chickens were wrong because either the fossils are not chickens or the dates are inaccurate.
To find out when the chickens first entered Europe, team members directly dated the bones of 23 of the earliest chickens proposed in Europe and Asia. The first chickens in Europe were found at an Etruscan site in Italy 2,800 years ago, the team said Antiquity today.
The study is also supported by historical records – including the Bible. “Chickens are not in the Old Testament,” said lead author Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter. “They exploded on the stage in the New Testament.”
It took another 1,000 years before the chickens spread north to Britain (with the Romans), Scandinavia and Iceland. Subtropical birds probably had to adapt to the colder climate, said archaeologist Julia Best of Cardiff University, who is involved in both studies.
And yet, it is only recently that people have begun to think of birds primarily as food. Initially, people traded them as exotic possessions, valued for their feathers, coloring and noisy crow at first light, based on how they were depicted in art and buried as a precious tomb, Sykes said. Early chickens were smaller, she notes, and were not a major source of meat. But a review of the team shows that about 500 years after chickens are introduced to each new location, they lose their special status and become ordinary food.
Studies show that “the scattering of domestic chickens is a more recent event than expected in the past,” said Masaki Eda, a zooarchaeologist at Hokkaido University.
However, Edda says he would like to see further research to make sure that the bones in Thailand are definitely domesticated chickens, not wild jungles buried with humans. He also wants researchers to explore other places in southwest Asia to connect the points showing where and how the chickens were domesticated as rice and millet farming spread throughout Eurasia.
Although chickens were later domesticated by other animals, they have become the most successful domesticated species on the planet, Larson said. Today, with 80 billion, they are 10 to 1. We are not just for chickens or rice, Sykes said. “The way people treat chickens is a brilliant lens to understand how people treat the natural world.”