Have you heard the one about when the chicken crossed the road… to domestication?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s a question many poultry fans have, but many don’t know how chickens got their start. Bird owners might not be aware of the fascinating history of our modern-day chicken, so read below for a scratch on the surface of the long and interesting history of poultry.
According to Joseph Barber, author of “The Chicken: A Natural History,” the domesticated chickens we see in our backyards today are descended from dinosaurs! They are closely related to the T-Rex (Powell, 2008). It’s hard to believe that these feathery animals are related to enormous, egg-laying reptilians that once roamed the earth. Chickens continued evolving from the dinosaur era and were domesticated approximately 10,000 years ago. They descended from wild junglefowl (Gallus species), which have lived in various places in China and Southeast Asia (Lawal, Martin, et al. 2020) since 5400 Before Common Era (BCE). The Red junglefowl and the Grey junglefowl are the ancestors of the domestic chickens we see today.
Like their wild ancestors, early domestic roosters were aggressive and protected their hens from predators. Humans liked this trait and bred these birds to cultivate “avian athletes.”
Domestication of chickens for fighting occurred before humans began raising chickens for their meat. These prized birds were distributed around the world (Clauer), leading to the popularity of cockfighting in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. These birds and fighting events eventually reached Britain and North America, where it eventually became illegal in the 19th Century (Barber, 16).
Recently, researchers found early evidence of chickens kept for food in an ancient city in Israel. Lee Perry-Gall and other archeologists have found chicken bones in Maresha that show marks consistent with use of knives for butchering. An important part of the finding was that of the more than a thousand bones found, twice as many were identified to be from females rather than males. This supported the idea that chickens were being used as food, since females are not the fighters in the chicken world. This archeological finding predated the earliest evidence of chicken-eating in Europe from the first century BCE by at least 100 years!
The chickens of today have come a long way from their ancestral past as fighters. Humans have been eating chickens for over 2,200 years (at least)! Now, many breeds are raised for different purposes and unique physical appearances. Certain breeds of chickens are suitable for commercial egg or meat production while other purebreds are raised for show and hobby farms (Clauer).
So, which came first? Wherever they might have started, we bet you’re happy that chickens have become a part of your life. Do you know where your favorite breed started and why? If not, we hope our little peck into the past has spurred your interest to research and learn more!
Barber, J (2012). “The Chicken: A Natural History”
Clauer, P. (2011). History of the Chicken. PennState Extension. Retrieved from https://extension.psu.edu/history-of-the-chicken.
Lawal, R. A., Martin, S. H., Vanmechelen, K., Vereijken, A., Silva, P., Al-Atiyat, R. M., … & Hocking, P. M. (2020). The wild species genome ancestry of domestic chickens. BMC biology, 18(1), 1-18. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7014787/
Powell, H. (2008) Smithsonian Magazine. T. Rex Linked to Chickens, Ostriches. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/t-rex-linked-to-chickens-ostriches-180940877/