Ancient Chicken Bones Reveal History of Animal-Human Relationships

Originally lured out of trees and into human life by rice, new research proves that chickens have a much more complex history than previously thought.

Two new studies, published in collaboration, rewrite the history of chicken domestication.

Findings such as a later domestication date for chickens and the use of grain crops to coax ancient chickens into the human sphere are among those found by the two research teams behind the recent studies.

Published in the Journal of Antiquity, the first research team used radiocarbon dating to decipher past interactions between humans and poultry in ways previously inconceivable, said Julia Best, senior lecturer at the University of Cardiff and research co-author.

“Until we do this kind of direct dating work on ancient animal bones, we’re still going to operate on preconceived knowledge and assumptions,” Best said.

Best’s team radiocarbon dated 23 ancient chicken bones from across Europe and northwest Africa. Unexpectedly, Best said that 18 of these bones belonged to periods later than those previously claimed. That amount was quite surprising, Best said.

“When I first got the results, I was actually a little sad. I was like, ‘Oh, no, where are all my first chickens?’ “Said Best. “And then it actually turned out to be the most exciting thing.”

Following those results, Best said his team reassessed what they thought they knew about the first chickens. Then they learned how chickens were once so much more than the “disposable diet items” society now considers them.

“The [was] a real range of different reasons for human interactions with chickens,” she said. “[Such as] exotic status, symbols, potential associations with deities, perhaps even accidental domestication.

How to accidentally domesticate a chicken?

The second study, published in the Journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the spread of rice and millet cultivation played an important role in the accidental closeness of humans and poultry. To determine this, the research team examined chicken remains from more than 600 sites in 89 countries.

Previously thought to have occurred up to 10,000 years ago in Southeast Asia, this new research dates the domestication of chickens to around 1,500 BC when the tree-dwelling red waterfowl, an ancestor of chickens , was drawn out of trees and into human ecosystems.

From there, the domestication of chickens developed alongside the global expansion of rice farming, spreading chickens across Asia and the Mediterranean.

“With their globally highly adaptable but predominantly grain-based diet, sea routes played a particularly important role in the spread of chickens to Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe,” Joris Peters, professor at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and co-author of the research, said in a press release.

Describing the research as a “stepping stone”, Best said she was looking forward to radiocarbon dating more chicken bones, with a focus on analyzing the isotopes and DNA found in the bones.

For now, Best said she hopes these studies will inspire people to rethink human-chicken relationships in the past and present.

“Because of the work we do, I think we put a different light on human-chicken relationships, actually showing that food was probably not their key. [role] early.”

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