The Human-Chicken Relationship: a 10,000-ish-Year Odyssey

Posted by TF Oren

Finally, a little love for the chickens.

Thanks to a $3-million grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain, a handful of researchers, including Oxford professor Dr. Greger Larson, are throwing themselves head-first into a major project examining the relationship between humans and chickens, or in official terms, "Cultural & Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions."

There are upwards of 20 billion chickens in the world, and today they sit just behind pigs as the world's most common source of animal protein. According to Dr. Larson, their number alone is a good reason to study them.

So is the fact that they've been domesticated for around 7,000-10,000 years, and for most of that time, weren't used as food. In fact, archaeological evidence unearthed in Israel suggests that they did not become a significant food source until about 2,200 years ago.

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So what were humans doing with domesticated chickens for so many thousands of years if not using them as food?

Research suggests that chickens were objects of ritual and recreation. They were used for various cultural purposes, including, but not limited to religious sacrifice and cockfighting.

The chicken study will delve into genetics and biological evolution, as well as the evolution of the chicken's role in human culture. In addition to the hard science involved, this project will seek to answer questions such as: why were chickens domesticated in the first place? What did people want with them? How and when did the chicken become a symbol of Easter? And, why do people find chickens - or the idea of chickens - humorous?

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Larson notes how profoundly human-chicken interaction has changed over thousands of years. He points to archaeological evidence from a village in Austria, where people from the early Middle Ages were found buried along with their chickens-- roosters buried with men and hens with women. Further analysis of the findings suggested that, based on the carbon and nitrogen found in the bones of the humans and the chickens, it was likely that both species shared similar environments and diets.

In other words, the chickens were living right alongside people; they weren't isolated or sequestered in coops.

Although Dr. Larsen's primary interest lies in genetics and biological evolution, he's quick to point out how important it is to examine cultural evolution in a major study like this one.

"The way we interact with chickens now and the way we interact with any of our domestic animals is a radical departure from the way humans have interacted with animals over the last 15,000 years...Understanding that gives us a much better insight not only into what we've had but what we've lost."

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The Human-Chicken Relationship: a 10,000-ish-Year Odyssey