The History of the Chicken

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Podcast Transcript

Around 10,000 years ago, someone in Southeast Asia captured a bird that lived on the floor of the jungle. Today, billions of descendants of that bird now live on six different continents and provide food for billions of people. 

Yet, the birds which exist today are often very different birds from the ones which were domesticated over ten millennia ago. Much of that change has occurred in just the last 70 years. 

Learn more about the chicken, and how they became one of the most common birds in the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In 2005 a paleontologist working in Montana found the bones of a 68 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex. Inside one of the bones, he found something which was very rare. He found a small piece of a blood vessel. Soft tissue is almost never found inside fossilized bones. 

After a chemical analysis of the protein they found something extraordinary. The closest living relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is…..the chicken. 

So, if you ever want to get your kids to eat their chicken or their eggs, just tell them that it is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It isn’t totally true, but it also isn’t totally false either. 

The domesticated chicken that we know originated in the jungles of Southeast Asia. 

Most domesticated animals were domesticated around 8,000-10,000 years ago, and the chicken is no exception. The only difference between chicken and cattle is that the ancient ancestor of the chicken still exists today. 

The chicken comes from four different species of wild junglefowl which are native to southeast Asia. One DNA study claimed that the modern chicken descended from a species located in the mountains of southwestern China, northern Thailand, and northeast Myanmar.

These may have then interbred with wild species located in India and China

The scientific name for the wild version of the junglefowl is gallus gallus  and the domesticated animal that we know as the chicken is gallus gallus dometicus.

Given its starting point in Southeast Asia, the chicken was primed to spread in several different directions.

There is still some doubt in the archeological record as to when chickens arrived where, but they were first in Southeast Asia before 6000 BC, then arrived in China a bit after 6000 BC, and then in India sometime around 2000 BC.

Of special note is that when humans took off in boats to settle in the Pacific, the only domesticated animal that was taken with them was the chicken.

Chickens were taken by Polynesians all the way across the Pacific. Evidence of chickens were found on Easter Island, the most distant Polynesian outpost.

More importantly, pre-Columbian chicken bones have been found in Chile, and there is a breed of chicken found in Chile known as the Araucana which lays blue-green eggs.

DNA analysis of the Araucana shows that it came from the chickens that the Polynesians had. Likewise, sweet potatoes which originated in South America have been found in Polynesian sites. 

Chickens were part of the evidence that Polynesians had contact with early Americans. 

Chickens also kept spreading west. They arrived in the Middle East around 2000 BC, and in Egypt around 1400 BC. 

Oddly enough, the primary purpose of chickens in Ancient Egypt was for cockfighting, not eggs or meat.

They made it to Europe around 800 BC and to sub-Saharan Africa sometime in the first millennium. 

The wide distribution of chickens meant that different breeding selections resulted in different varieties of chickens all over the world. 

The original primary use for domesticated chickens was for eggs. Similar to how cows used for dairy could provide a constant stream of calories, so too could a chicken provide a constant stream of eggs. 

Several hundred years after Egyptians began using chickens for cockfighting, they began to start breeding chickens extensively. They created the first incubators and developed a system for chicken breeding. The Egyptians called them “bird that gives birth every day”.

Likewise, chicken raising grew under the Romans. The Romans developed the omelet, and chickens became so popular that a law was passed in 171BC that limited the number of chickens which could be served per meal to one.

When Rome fell, so did the popularity of the chicken. In the middle ages, other fowl such as ducks and geese increased in popularity. Chickens were always around, but they weren’t necessarily the most popular bird on farms. 

When Europeans brought chickens to North America, they also weren’t that popular at first because there were ample wildfowl such as geese, ducks, and turkeys which were available. 

Here are I should note some things about chickens. 

Chickens are omnivores. In fact, they are very serious omnivores. They will eat seeds, plants, bugs, frogs, mice, as well as eggs and other chickens. On many farms, they served a function similar to pigs in that they will eat almost any food scraps which they are given. 

Traditionally, chickens would simply be allowed to roam around most farms and they would peck and scratch for their food. They didn’t necessarily need to be fed a special diet, and if they were fed something special, it was usually just grain or other leftovers.

As most of you probably know, chickens can’t fly like most birds. However, they can fly in limited bursts to get over a fence or fly up to a tree branch.  

The world’s record for the longest recorded flight for a chicken is 13 seconds, and the longest distance is 301 feet or about 100 meters. 

While chickens were already global 2000 years ago, they remained relatively unchanged until recently.

For example, the average chicken at the beginning of the 20th century would lay about 100 eggs per year, and it weighed a little under 1 kilogram. 

If you look at a restaurant menu from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, chicken was usually the most expensive meat on the menu. The exact opposite of what it is today. 

Chicken was considered a delicacy and something that was only eaten for special occasions, something closer to how turkey is consumed in the United States today.

Evidence of this came in a 1928 political ad for Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover, which popularized the phrase, “a chicken in every pot”. 

The phrase “a chicken in every pot” actually dates back much earlier. It might have come from the French King Henry IV in the 16th century, who wanted the poor in his kingdom to have a chicken in their pot every Sunday.

Efforts were made to try to selectively breed chickens to increase egg production. By 1926, chickens were able to produce up to 250 eggs per year. 

The big change in the production and consumption of chickens began with the second world war. 

Beef and other meats were rationed, but chickens were something that many people could raise in their backyards. The total number of chickens in the United States exploded and it became a much more popular meat than it was before the war, even though they were still mostly raised for eggs.

After the war when beef and pork rations were lifted, the largest grocery chain in the US, A&P, was concerned that people were going to eat less chicken. 

So, in 1948 they launched a contest called The Chicken of Tomorrow. The goal was nothing less than to create a larger chicken. Its objective was described by the Saturday Evening Post as “one bird chunky enough for the whole family—a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.”

40 breeders sent in their crossbreed eggs to the judging facility in Deleware. They were grown and then judged on the basis of size. 

The winner was Charles Vantress of California who had a chicken that was a cross between a cornish and a New Hampshire Red. It was 40% larger than a normal chicken.

This process of crossbreeding for larger, faster-growing chicken has continued for decades. 

In 1957, the average weight of an adult chicken was 905g. In 1978 it had increased to 1,800g, and by 2005, it had reached 4,200g. That is a 364% increase in 50 years. 

By the same note, the average number of eggs produced by a chicken can now reach over 300 per year. 

As chickens got larger, the breeding of chickens took off and the number of chickens raised annually exploded. 

It allowed for chicken to become a staple of fast food. A small restaurant started by Harlan Sanders in the 1930s called the Sanders Court & Café, became a franchised restaurant chain in the 1950s called Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC. 

Today there are over 27,000 KFC outlets worldwide and it is the most popular chain of restaurants in Asia, with over 5,600 outlets in China alone.

The popularity of KFC has also spawned many other chicken chains such as Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, Pollo Loco, and WingStop.

Per capita beef and pork consumption has dropped since 1965, whereas chicken consumption has more than tripled.

There are now 50 billion chickens raised each year, making it the most numerous bird in the world, domesticated or wild, by a wide margin. 

One of the downsides of the increase in the size of chickens and their industrialized production is that they have lost much of their flavor which made them a delicacy in the first place. This is true for both meat and eggs. 

Recently there has been a revival in heritage breeds of chickens, which haven’t been crossbred for size or growth. These chickens can often go for hundreds of dollars. 

This has been in conjunction with a trend toward the raising of free-range chickens. This allows chickens to eat a more natural, omnivorous diet. It not only improves the quality but also gets them out of the cramped factory environment they would otherwise be raised in.

There has also been a renewed interest in raising chickens. More and more cities now allow for backyard chicken coops, although the numbers are usually limited, and they usually don’t allow for roosters, which can be noisy.

Chickens are one of the rare things which have been around for thousands of years. They can be found in every country and on every continent, yet despite their ancient origins, they are probably more important now than they have ever been.