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Chicken domestication began in this part of the world 3,500 years ago

The bird's domestication was tens of thousands of years in the making, triggered by dry rice farming in China.

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A selective focus shot of a rooster and chicken in the chicken coop on the farm
(Photo by Light and Vision via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Chicken tikka masala or Kentucky fried nuggets would have our ancestors turning in their grave, according to new research.

Iron Age Brits were buried with the humble bird which was revered as a deity - rather than a delicacy, say scientists.

Men were laid to rest with cockerels - and females with hens.

An international team has rewritten the history of the world's most popular meat and found it's much more complicated than previously believed.

During the Iron Age in Europe, chickens were idolized and generally not regarded as food.

Co-author Professor Naomi Sykes, of Exeter University, said: "Eating chickens is so common people think we have never not eaten them.

"Our evidence shows our past relationship with chickens was far more complex - and that for centuries chickens were celebrated and venerated."

The findings are based on chicken remains from over 600 sites in 89 countries ranging from Morocco, Greece and South America to Stonehenge and Orkney.

Bones, locations and historical records shed fresh light on the local societies and cultures.

Today, it's the ubiquitous food. A generation of Brits think chicken tikka masala is the national dish. In China, Kentucky Fried Chicken is regarded similarly.

But the bird's domestication was tens of thousands of years in the making - and was triggered by dry rice farming in China.

Co-author Prof Greger Larson, of Oxford University, said: "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.”

During the Iron Age, the birds were buried unbutchered - either alone or with people. The Roman Empire then helped to popularize chickens and eggs as food.

In Britain, chickens were not regularly consumed until the third century AD, mostly in urban and military sites.

Radiocarbon dating established 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, dispelling claims of chickens in Europe before the first millennium BC.

It indicates they did not arrive in the Mediterranean region until around 800 BC. It took almost 1,000 years longer for them to become established in the colder climates of Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland.

Co-author Dr. Julia Best, of Cardiff University, said: "This is the first time 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."

The oldest bones of a definite domestic chicken were found at a Stone Age site in Thailand - and date to between 1,650 and 1,250 BC.

It transforms our understanding of chickens, their spread across Asia into the west and the changing way in which they were perceived in societies over the past 3,500 years.

Rice farming started a process that led to them becoming one of the planet's most numerous animals.

Chickens were initially regarded as "exotica," and only several centuries later used as a source of food.

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

Now the most complete analyses to date show this is wrong - and the driving force was the arrival of dry rice farming.

It acted as a magnet by drawing their wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl, down from the trees kickstarting a closer relationship with people resulting in chickens.

The phenomenon was underway by around 1,500 BC in the Southeast Asia peninsula. Chickens were then transported across the continent and into the Mediterranean.

They were taken along the same routes used by early Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician maritime traders.

Co-author Prof Joris Peters, of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, said: "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."

Today chickens are exported around the world - for the great British Sunday roast or fast food takeaways.

The species is now established across a broad range of ecosystems and societies - providing humans with increasing quantities of both meat and eggs.

It's easy to assume chickens were domesticated primarily as a food source. But there's little evidence to support this hypothesis.

Despite its global economic and cultural significance, the early history of the chicken was a mystery - until now.

Co-author Dr. Ophelie Lebrasseur, of Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, said: "The fact 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."

It's reported in two separate papers in Antiquity and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-author Prof Mark Maltby, of Bournemouth University, said: "These studies show the value of museums and the importance of archaeological materials to reveal our past."

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