hens, the fabulous story of domestication

The bones of these animals easily move in the layers of sediment, complicating the work of archaeologists. It can’t fly, yet it has invaded the world in a few thousand years… Today it is the most widespread bird on the planet: there are three specimens for every human being. A total of 22 billion chickens, hens roosters and other domestic chicks – these are exactly what we are talking about – gossip on Earth, all of the species gallus gallus, better known as the “golden rooster”. The diffusion of chicken in the world, a real odyssey, has long remained an enigma. But now in this year 2022, after an intense archaeological investigation, two international teams of researchers have finally managed to trace it better.

The story of the chickens

The story begins in Asia. The hen is therefore a wild animal, which lives in the heart of a hostile jungle – hard to imagine! His encounter with man can be outlined thanks to the remains brought to light in archaeological sites and which can be dated by stratigraphy, estimating the age of the geological layer in which they rest. Until now, two main theories have been confronted: some scientists indicated northern China as the place of domestication, while others placed it rather in Southeast Asia. But there was a problem: it’s easy to confuse the bones – remains discovered in China a few years ago actually turned out to be those of pheasants – and, even more so, chicken bones are small and fragile, so easily moved through the several layers of sediment. The dating method lacked reliability.

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The researchers then resumed the work from scratch. They reassessed 600 archaeological sites in 89 countries, re-examined the bones, their stratigraphic location, and combined these observations with zoogeographic data. About 23 bones from Europe and northern Africa, presumably the oldest to date, were also radiocarbon dated. This mass of information was then crossed with iconographic, written and linguistic archives, all cultural sources that mention the hen. Boring work… which paid off! The oldest chicken bones were thus located in central Thailand, in Ban Non Wat precisely, together with other remains of domestic animals such as pigs and dogs.

Attracted by grains of rice or millet, the golden rooster would have come out of the jungle to approach humans – OPHELIA LEBRASSEUR Archaeozoologist at the CNRS and the University of Toulouse III

It is therefore in Southeast Asia that this descendant of the dinosaur was domesticated. A more recent event than estimated: the hypotheses assumed that the encounter between hens and humans had occurred about 10,000 years ago… only that the remains would date back only to 3,500 years ago! “A very interesting coincidence emphasizes Ophélie Lebrasseur, archaeozoologist of the CNRS and the University of Toulouse III. This date coincides with the emergence of dry rice cultivation in the region, which could have acted as a magnet: attracted by grains of rice, millet or insects related to agriculture, the golden rooster would have come out of the jungle where it lived to approach humans. “

CHICKENS: RELATED TO TRADE

Then everything accelerated: gallus gallus an epic has begun that we can begin to outline (see map) . Under human influence, the species reached central China, southern Asia, and Mesopotamia beginning in the late 2nd millennium BC. Via sea routes, Greek, Etruscan, and Phoenician traders then transported the bird across the Mediterranean. “There is a link between the movement of populations, the commercial exchanges that take place between ever more distant regions, and the circulation of species. underlines Michaël Seigle, archaeozoologist associated with the Archéorient laboratory (CNRS), who participated in the research. It is likely that eggs were a valuable source of fresh produce for merchants on their travels. “

Especially since the hen, much smaller than today, was easy to transport. It had already changed a lot in contact with humans: a study published in 2008 showed that if current hens took the vast majority of their genome from the golden rooster, one of their genes, called “yellow skin”, would come from the species Gallus sonneratii, still present in the wild in India. Very probable conclusion: a hybridization event would have occurred, perhaps encouraged by humans. Furthermore, an Egyptian text from the 2nd millennium BC mentions birds imported by Pharaoh Thutmose III which give birth every day. A feature that our current domestic hen possesses. Except that its ancestor only spawned during a limited time of the year! “Which tends to show that humans had already selected the most fertile specimens” concludes Michael Rye.

But be careful, this does not mean that gallus gallus it was a source of food! It is perhaps also the most surprising discovery of the researchers: several indices tend to demonstrate that originally the hen was not necessarily consumed. If the use of eggs remains difficult to estimate – the shells are very badly preserved – the skeletons of hens have been found many times intact, with no trace of slaughtering.

A TRUE EXOTIC CURIOSITY

It’s only from the 8th century. before our era that the hen finally landed on European soil. gallus gallus then it gradually merged with the center of the continent, and it would be another millennium before it reached Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland. “Nothing surprising says Michael Rye. The acclimatization of the hen, animal from the warm, humid forests of Asia, in the cold temperatures of the north it may have taken some time. ” However, the species shows remarkable adaptability!

It seems, in this conquest of Europe, to keep its sacred aura, at least for a while. The animal was certainly considered an exotic, rare and revered curiosity, offered as a gift and cared for: “One of the oldest hens found in England bears the marks of a broken leg that has successfully healed” , notes Ophélie Lebrasseur, for example. On land, hens were originally buried alone, and several specimens have been buried alongside human bodies: hens with women and roosters with men, possibly for the purpose of guiding souls to the afterlife. And the Romans attributed the power of divination to the bird!

However, human appetites eventually caught up with him… Under Roman influence during the Iron Age, in particular, gallus gallus it is spreading more and more on the plates. Archaeologists are seeing an increase in remains in the archaeological record. A still enigmatic twist: perhaps by spreading, the animal has simply lost prestige. Then a second explosion in chicken consumption occurred during the Middle Ages, when the Benedictine order forbade the consumption of four-legged animals during Lent.

The hen, which stands proud in two, no longer escapes the pot.

The story is not over yet: during the XIV century. , the hen continued its conquest of the islands of Oceania (Easter Island, Polynesia, etc.), then landed in Chile and spread to South America. In the fifteenth century. , she accompanies the European colonists on their expeditions and reaches North America. Finally, during the 20th century. , undergoes its most intense transformation: its body mass is multiplied up to five times due to human influence. “To revive the economy of the poultry and poultry sectors after the Second World War, and in the face of competition from beef and pork, the goal is therefore to create an individual capable of feeding an entire family” explains Ophelie Lebrasseur.

The end of this epic is certainly somewhat tragic… Which does not prevent certain hens from still sailing with humans to discover the world. Monique, for example, wintered with the sailor Guirec Soudée in Greenland in 2015, crossed the Arctic Ocean in 2016 and reached Antarctica in 2018. The hen has pawed on all continents… The next step, the space?

MARTHA ZUMACK – SHUTTERSTOCK – ALAMY/HEMIS x 2 -PHOTO JOSSE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

1 From 1650 to 1250 BC, the hen is domesticated: the first remains that attest to a rapprochement with man were discovered in central Thailand.

2 From the end of the second millennium BC, it spreads to central China, southern Asia and Mesopotamia, through trade routes.

3 I At the end of the millennium BC, lands on the islands of Oceania.

4 Between the 9th century and the sixth century. Before our era, it reaches the Horn of Africa by sea, and then gradually spreads throughout the African continent.

5 In the eighth century. Before our eralands in Europe, especially in Italy and the Balearic Islands by sea.

6 From the 6th to the 5th century. Before our era, it is spreading in central Europe (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, southern England, etc.).

7 In the eighth century. of our age, reaches the extreme north of Europe (Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland).

8 In the fourteenth century, it arrives in Chile from Oceania by sea, passing through all the Pacific islands, then spreads to South America.

9 In the 15th century, accompanies European settlers in their conquest of the New World and establishes a foothold in North America.

The goose! For a long time it was the hen that was awarded this title. Only that a study by the Japanese Kana-zawa University, published in March 2022, has come to shuffle the cards. Researchers have discovered about 200 goose bones in the Chinese archaeological site of Tianluoshan, south of Shanghai. Their radiocarbon age has been estimated at almost 7,000 years, twice as long as the first domesticated hens. And several clues suggest that these specimens lived with humans: They foraged differently from their migrating counterparts, and the researchers even noted the presence of juveniles. However, normally, no wild goose species breed in the region!

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