Science News discusses two new studies that place the origins of domestic chickens in one specific place – Southeast Asia – and much more recently than we thought, and much more connected to the cultivation of rice:
This poultry tale begins surprisingly recently in rice fields planted by Southeast Asian farmers around 3,500 years ago, zooarchaeologist Joris Peters and colleagues report. From there, the birds were transported westward not as food but as exotic or culturally revered creatures, the team suggests June 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The domesticated fowl then arrived in Mediterranean Europe no earlier than around 2,800 years ago, archaeologist Julia Best of Cardiff University in Wales and colleagues report June 6 in Antiquity. The birds appeared in northwest Africa between 1,100 and 800 years ago, the team says.
Researchers have debated where and when chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) originated for more than 50 years. India’s Indus Valley, northern China and Southeast Asia have all been touted as domestication centers.
The new story begins in Southeast Asian rice fields. The earliest known chicken remains come from Ban Non Wat, a dry rice–farming site in central Thailand that roughly dates to between 1650 B.C. and 1250 B.C. Dry rice farmers plant the crop on upland soil soaked by seasonal rains rather than in flooded fields or paddies. That would have made rice grains at Ban Non Wat fair game for avian ancestors of chickens.
These fields attracted hungry wild birds called red jungle fowl. Red jungle fowl increasingly fed on rice grains, and probably grains of another cereal crop called millet, grown by regional farmers, Peters’ group speculates. A cultivated familiarity with people launched chicken domestication by around 3,500 years ago, the researchers say.
Chickens did not arrive in central China, South Asia or Mesopotamian society in what’s now Iran and Iraq until nearly 3,000 years ago, the team estimates.
But the new insights into chickens don’t end there. Using radiocarbon dating, Best’s group determined that 23 chicken bones from 16 sites in Eurasia and Africa were generally younger, in some cases by several thousand years, than previously thought. These bones had apparently settled into lower sediment layers over time, where they were found with items made by earlier human cultures.
It’s striking to me that these studies indicate that chickens were first domesticated after the Great Pyramid was built, and not as long ago as the probably date of the oldest books of the Bible. Gilgamesh would not have known (nor revered) domestic chickens. His loss, I say.