F Rosa Rubicondior: The Evolution of Chickens and Why God Wasn't Aware of Them

Thursday, 9 June 2022

The Evolution of Chickens and Why God Wasn't Aware of Them

A map depicting the distribution of both the gray and Ceylon junglefowl species and three subspecies of red junglefowl: G. gallus murghi, G. gallus spadiceus, and G. gallus jabouillei. The distribution of G. gallus gallus is depicted as the remainder of mainland southeast Asia and Sumatra following the general distribution in ref. 16. The G. gallus murghi distribution follows that of SI Appendix, Fig. S1, which draws on published maps in ornithological sources and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) records (119, 120 & 121). For G. gallus spadiceus and G. gallus jabouillei, the GBIF records were augmented by specimens with genetic data reported by refs. 16 and 122.

Major new international research reveals new evidence about when, where, and how chickens were domesticated | University of Exeter

A quick search of the Bible on my Kindle reveals that there is no mention of chickens as such anywhere in the Old Testament and they don't get a mention in the Bible until Matthew 23:7, which was probably written in the second half of the first century CE.

There is a very good reason for this: despite being one of the major sources of protein in the world as the most widely consumed meat, the domestic chicken was unknown to the authors of the Old Testament, according to new research by international teams pf archaeologists led by scientists from the University of Exeter, UK and including academics from the universities of Exeter, Munich, Cardiff, Oxford, Bournemouth, Toulouse, and universities and institutes in Germany, France and Argentina.

These teams results are published in two open access papers - the Cambridge Core journal Antiquity and the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

The first paper deals with the arrival of domestic chickens in Western Eurasia, the Middle East and Northwest Africa.

Briefly, the teams have shown that the domestication of the wild junglefowl of Southeast Asia did not happen until the dry cultivation of rice and millet tempted them out of the jungle and into human habitation where they could feed on these grains, but prior to being used for food, chickens were regarded as exotica and even revered for several hundred years.

What their domestication, to become now one of the most abundant avian species on the planet and probably in the whole of history, illustrates rather neatly, is how 'selfish' genes can form alliances with other groups of 'selfish' genes, to the mutual benefit of both sets. The domestic subspecies of the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus)) has teamed up with humans, who had earlier formed an alliance with the wild rice, Oryza sativa. Now humans, chickens and rice are vastly more abundant than they could have been without these alliances. It matters not to the chicken genes that almost all the chickens get eaten, so long as they reproduce and leave more descendants than their wild ancestors do. The same case can be made for all domestic animals, such as sheep and cattle, of course.

The other important lesson from this research is that chickens appeared on the human food menu much later than was previously thought, and not in India, as was previously thought either, but in the Southeast Asian peninsula. The Exeter University news release gives the details:
New research transforms our understanding of the circumstances and timing of the domestication of chickens, their spread across Asia into the west, and reveals the changing way in which they were perceived in societies over the past 3,500 years.

Eating chickens is so common that people think we have never not eaten them. Our evidence shows that our past relationship with chickens was far more complex, and that for centuries chickens were celebrated and venerated./p>

Professor Naomi Sykes, corresponding author
Department of Archaeology
University of Exeter, UK

This comprehensive re-evaluation of chickens firstly demonstrates how wrong our understanding of the time and place of chicken domestication was. And even more excitingly, we show how the arrival of dry rice agriculture acted as a catalyst for both the chicken domestication process and its global dispersal.

Professor Greger Larson, co-author
School of Archaeology
University of Oxford

This is the first time that radiocarbon dating has been used on this scale to determine the significance of chickens in early societies. Our results demonstrate the need to directly date proposed early specimens, as this allows us the clearest picture yet of our early interactions with chickens.

Dr Julia Best, lead author
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
And School of History, Archaeology and Religion
Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
Experts have found that an association with rice farming likely started a process that has led to chickens becoming one of the world’s most numerous animals. They have also found evidence that chickens were initially regarded as exotica, and only several centuries later used as a source of ‘food’.

Previous efforts have claimed that chickens were domesticated up to 10,000 years ago in China, Southeast Asia, or India, and that chickens were present in Europe over 7,000 years ago.

With their overall highly adaptable but essentially cereal-based diet, sea routes played a particularly important role in the spread of chickens to Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe.

Professor Joris Peters, co-author Department of Veterinary Sciences
Ludwig Maximilian University, And Bavarian State Collection of Palaeoanatomy, Munich, Germany
The new studies show this is wrong, and that the driving force behind chicken domestication was the arrival of dry rice farming into southeast Asia where their wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl, lived. Dry rice farming acted as a magnet drawing wild jungle fowl down from the trees, and kickstarting a closer relationship between people and the jungle fowl that resulted in chickens.

This domestication process was underway by around 1,500 BC in the Southeast Asia peninsula. The research suggests that chickens were then transported first across Asia and then throughout the Mediterranean along routes used by early Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician maritime traders.

The fact that chickens are so ubiquitous and popular today, and yet were domesticated relatively recently is startling. Our research highlights the importance of robust osteological comparisons, secure stratigraphic dating and placing early finds within their broader cultural and environmental context.

Dr Ophélie Lebrasseur, co-author
School of Archaeology
University of Oxford, UK And Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology
University of Liverpool, UK And Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)
Université Toulouse Paul Sabatier
Toulouse, France
During the Iron Age in Europe, chickens were venerated and generally not regarded as food. The studies have shown that several of the earliest chickens are buried alone and un-butchered, and many are also found buried with people. Males were often buried with cockerels and females with hens. The Roman Empire then helped to popularise chickens and eggs as food. For example, in Britain, chickens were not regularly consumed until the third century AD, mostly in urban and military sites.

The international team of experts re-evaluated chicken remains found in more than 600 sites in 89 countries. They examined the skeletons, burial location and historical records regarding the societies and cultures where the bones were found. The oldest bones of a definite domestic chicken were found at Neolithic Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, and date to between 1,650 and 1,250 BC.

The team also used radiocarbon dating to establish the age of 23 of the proposed earliest chickens found in western Eurasia and north-west Africa. Most of the bones were far more recent than previously thought. The results dispel claims of chickens in Europe before the first millennium BC and indicate that they did not arrive until around 800 BC. Then, after arriving in the Mediterranean region, it took almost 1,000 years longer for chickens to become established in the colder climates of Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland.
This paper is published in Antiquity:
Little is known about the early history of the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), including the timing and circumstances of its introduction into new cultural environments. To evaluate its spatio-temporal spread across Eurasia and north-west Africa, the authors radiocarbon dated 23 chicken bones from presumed early contexts. Three-quarters returned dates later than those suggested by stratigraphy, indicating the importance of direct dating. The results indicate that chickens did not arrive in Europe until the first millennium BC. Moreover, a consistent time-lag between the introduction of chickens and their consumption by humans suggests that these animals were initially regarded as exotica and only several centuries later recognised as a source of ‘food’.

A map depicting the earliest confidently assigned chicken remains across Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania alongside a spatial kriging interpolation of the timing of the arrival of chickens.

The second paper by substantially the same team deals with the earliest evidence of domestication and tracks the spread of the domestic chicken from Southeast Asia. Using a combination of zoogeographic, morphological, osteometric, stratigraphic, contextual, iconographic, and textual data from more than 600 sites in 89 countries, the team concluded that the first unambiguously domestic chicken bones were found at Neolithic Ban Non Wat in central Thailand dated to ∼1650 to 1250 BCE.

This date coincides with the beginnings of cultivation of rice and millet in the area. The team suggests that the cultivation and storage of these grains would have been a magnet for jungle fowl which are predominantly seed-eating. However, they were probably not bred and traded for food initially; rather the evidence suggests they were venerated as exotic objects and spread into India as such. They did not reach China and South Asia or Mesopotamia before the late second millennium BCE and reached Ethiopia and Mediterranean Europe by about 800 BCE.

Copyright: © 2022 The authors.
Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Antiquity Publications Ltd. Open access (CC BY 4.0)

Copyright: © 2022 The authors.
Published by PNAS Open access (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
The team gives the following dates for the earliest appearance of domestic chickens, G. g. gallus, in different parts of Eurasia, Africa and Oceania, spreading, along with rice and millet cultivation (summarised from Results section of the paper) :
  • East and Northeast Asia.
    Shang Dynasty, which spanned ∼1350 to 1046; Japan (and Korean Peninsula) - Middle Yayoi ∼100 BCE to 100 CE
  • Central Asia.
    ∼500 to 300 BCE (from depictions of cockerels in the Altai Mountains)
  • Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
    Early first millennium BCE and possibly about 2000 BCE. Hawaii, 1200 BCE; Indonesian Banda Islands, 700 CE
  • Southwest Asia.
    A depiction of a cockerel in a temple at Istar, Iraq - 1200 BCE (religious symbol).
    Mesopotamia and the Levant, scattered bones suggest chicken husbandry, ∼1150 to 965 BCE.
    Other evidence shows increasing use of chickens - ∼965 to 530 BCE.
  • Northeast Africa.
    Lower Egypt - ∼550 to 330 BCE
    Upper Egypt - 305 to 30 BCE
    Northern Ethiopia - ∼800 to 600 BCE, probably spreading across the Red Sea from Arabia.
    African interior, Madagascar and the Comoro Islands - ∼750 to 900 CE, along with rice, black rats and mung beans, from India.
  • North and West Africa.
    West African Mande-speaking territory - ∼500 BCE, possibly from Phoenician and Roman trade with the coast of Morocco.
  • Europe.
    Bulgaria, Greece, and France - 137 to 327 CE (by carbon dating). Southern Europe, Italy - 776 to 540 BCE, via Phoenician traders.
    Upper Rhine and Danube River basins, southern England - late sixth/early fifth century BCE.
    Chicken farming established in Low Countries by Romans - Late Iron Age.
The open access paper is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS):

Chickens are the world’s most numerous domestic animal. In order to understand when, where, and how they first became associated with human societies, we critically assessed the domestic status of chicken remains described in >600 sites in 89 countries, and evaluated zoogeographic, morphological, osteometric, stratigraphic, contextual, iconographic, and textual data. Although previous studies have made claims for an early origin of chickens, our results suggest that unambiguous chickens were not present until ∼1650 to 1250 BCE in central Thailand. A correlation between early chickens and the first appearance of rice and millet cultivation suggests that the production and storage of these cereals may have acted as a magnet, thus initiating the chicken domestication process.


Though chickens are the most numerous and ubiquitous domestic bird, their origins, the circumstances of their initial association with people, and the routes along which they dispersed across the world remain controversial. In order to establish a robust spatial and temporal framework for their origins and dispersal, we assessed archaeological occurrences and the domestic status of chickens from ∼600 sites in 89 countries by combining zoogeographic, morphological, osteometric, stratigraphic, contextual, iconographic, and textual data. Our results suggest that the first unambiguous domestic chicken bones are found at Neolithic Ban Non Wat in central Thailand dated to ∼1650 to 1250 BCE, and that chickens were not domesticated in the Indian Subcontinent. Chickens did not arrive in Central China, South Asia, or Mesopotamia until the late second millennium BCE, and in Ethiopia and Mediterranean Europe by ∼800 BCE. To investigate the circumstances of their initial domestication, we correlated the temporal spread of rice and millet cultivation with the first appearance of chickens within the range of red junglefowl species. Our results suggest that agricultural practices focused on the production and storage of cereal staples served to draw arboreal red junglefowl into the human niche. Thus, the arrival of rice agriculture may have first facilitated the initiation of the chicken domestication process, and then, following their integration within human communities, allowed for their dispersal across the globe.

Peters, Joris; Lebrasseur, Ophélie; Irving-Pease, Evan K.; Paxinos, Ptolemaios Dimitrios; Best, Julia; Smallman, Riley; Callou, Cécile; Gardeisen, Armelle; Trixl, Simon; Frantz, Laurent; Sykes, Naomi; Fuller, Dorian Q.; Larson, Greger (2022)
The biocultural origins and dispersal of domestic chickens
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119 (24) e212197811; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2121978119

Copyright: © 2022 The authors.
Published by PNAS Open access
Reprinted under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
What these papers show then is how species, or rather their genes, can form mutually beneficial (from the 'point of view' of the genes) alliances so that chickens, for example, in alliance with humans and their cereal crops, have become probably the most abundant avian species in history and one of the major sources of animal protein in the human diet. The fact that they were not present when the origin myths and stories in the Old Testament is simply because the authors had never heard of them, as, at that time, they had not spread from their origins in Southeast Asia.

Added to the evidence this paper presents of these evolutionary alliances and the evidence explaining the absence of chickens in the Old Testament, these papers, if they were aware of them, would be a major embarrassment to fundamentalist creationists who believe the Bible was written by the supposed creator of life on earth. The author apparently knew nothing of the chicken, even though it wrote about other domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle, so it isn't even given a mention in its list of 'clean' and 'unclean' species which can or cannot be eaten. Strange, that!

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