Oldest remains of domestic chickens discovered in Thailand

(ORDO NEWS) — Archaeologists have investigated the origin of domestic chickens and found that it is safe to talk about the domestication of these birds only around 1650-1250 BC. The oldest evidence of this was found in the northeast of Thailand.

Scientists have hypothesized that the domestication of chickens is associated with the spread of rice farming. In addition, past claims that chickens could have been in Europe as early as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages have been rejected.

Radiocarbon analysis confirmed that the distribution of these birds on the continent occurred only in the 1st millennium BC. This is reported in two articles (1, 2) published in Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences and Antiquity.

In the 21st century, chickens have become the most numerous vertebrates, with an estimated population of around 22 billion, with about 60 billion going under the knife each year. Modern domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) are descended from the wild Banking jungle chickens (G. gallus) that live in the humid forests of Southeast Asia.

The time of domestication of these birds remains a subject of debate, for example, there were claims that domestic chickens were bred in the Yellow River basin already 11,000–8,000 years ago – but they have not found further confirmation.

Recent genetic studies have shown that all modern domestic chickens are descended from birds that inhabited southwestern China, northern Thailand and Myanmar.

The time of the appearance of chickens in Europe is also a debatable issue. According to one version, these birds arrived from South or Southeast Asia through the Levant along the Mediterranean route, and this may have been due to the settlement of the Phoenicians.

According to another, they spread through the territory of Northern China and Russia. There are several sites in Eastern Europe, the oldest of which date back to the Neolithic era, where chicken bones were found, which served as confirmation of this version.

Studies show that, apparently, for a long time these birds were mainly valued not for meat, eggs and feathers. The brightly colored birds that greet the beginning of the day with a loud crowing may well have been part of the mythology and ceremonial that included cockfights.

For example, chicken remains from Britain showed that the locals raised mainly roosters for centuries, sometimes lived up to two or four years.

Moreover, in many regions of Europe (with the exception of the Roman Empire), it seems that the widespread rearing of domestic chickens for meat and eggs did not begin until after the spread of Christianity.

In the first study, a group of scientists from Argentina, Britain, Germany, Denmark, China and France, led by Greger Larson of the University of Oxford, studied the process of domesticating chickens and spreading them around the world.

To do this, they re-examined materials collected at more than 600 archaeological sites from 89 countries of the world, and also drew on historical and linguistic data.

Oldest remains of domestic chickens discovered in Thailand 2
The map shows the time of distribution of domestic chickens around the world, taking into account only reliable dates

As a result of the study, the authors of the work came to the conclusion that the earliest remains of birds, which can be confidently called domestic chickens, come from the Neolithic site of Ban Non Wat (about 1650–1250 BC), located in the northeast of Thailand.

Older evidence from India proved to be dubious – the bones apparently belonged to local wild birds. This is also indicated by linguistic data, according to which chickens became widespread in India between 1500 and 500 BC.

The presence of domestic chickens in the Yellow River basin about 11-8 thousand years ago, according to scientists, is not confirmed by either climatic, palynological or paleozoological data. Moreover, re-analysis of ancient bones showed that they were not chicken at all, but pheasants (Phasianus colchicus).

It is safe to say that domestic chickens were in East Asia during the Shang Dynasty (circa 1350-1046 BC). They reached Japan only in the middle of the Yayoi period (about 100 BC – 100 AD). In Central Asia, the earliest evidence for the existence of chickens comes from images of roosters in the Pazyryk culture (circa 500–300 BC).

In addition, chicken bones of the 4th century BC were found in the Kurganzol fortress, which was founded by Alexander the Great. In the opposite direction, domestic chickens spread even later. Thus, in the Indonesian Banda Islands, the earliest evidence is from about 700 AD, in Hawaii from about 1200, in Australia from 1778, and in New Zealand from 1773.

The scientists noted that paleozoological evidence from Southwest Asia is difficult to interpret. Separate finds of chicken bones from Bronze Age settlements turned out to be later – as indicated by radiocarbon analysis.

Written evidence found in cuneiform texts appears to have been misinterpreted. So, the Akkadian su-la-mu meant not a domestic chicken, but some other bird, for example, a francolin (Francolinus francolinus).

Breeding of domestic chickens, apparently, began already in the Iron Age (about 1150-965 BC). The oldest reliable evidence of the breeding of these birds in Egypt is even younger and dates back to about 550-330 BC. At the same time, chickens appeared in Ethiopia earlier (about 800–600 BC). Poultry farming came to the interior of Africa much later.

The researchers reported that chicken remains found at European Neolithic and Bronze Age sites were much younger than thought. The earliest known remains to have been directly radiocarbon dated were found in two Greek colonies in Italy (circa 776–540 BC).

In addition, at the same time, the Phoenicians brought chickens to the Balearic Islands and southern Spain. By the end of the 6th – beginning of the 5th century BC, these birds were among the tribes that inhabited the basins of the Upper Rhine and Danube, as well as in the southeast of England. Chickens reached the Baltics and Finland only around 600–800 AD.

Oldest remains of domestic chickens discovered in Thailand 3
Archaeological evidence of rice cultivation in Southeast Asia

The authors of the study also put forward a hypothesis about the process of domestication of chickens. They speculate that this is due to the spread of rice farming, as Bankavian jungle chickens love to feed on rice grains (Oryza).

According to them, the cultivation of fields where millet (Panicum) and rice were grown, crop residues and human food, as well as an abundance of invertebrates associated with the breeding of pigs and cattle, attracted wild birds and contributed to the fact that they began to settle near people.

Correlations between the beginning of rice cultivation and the rearing of domestic chickens are also observed in other regions.

In a second study, a group of scientists from Bulgaria, the UK, Germany and France, led by Naomi Sykes of the University of Exeter, refined the timing of the spread of chickens across Europe and Northwest Africa, for which they obtained 23 direct radiocarbon dates of bones found at 16 archaeological sites. monuments. Findings made in the cultural layers of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages were selected for analysis.

Oldest remains of domestic chickens discovered in Thailand 4
The location of the monuments where the chicken bones for the second study came from

It turned out that out of 23 bones, only five were in the cultural layer corresponding to their age. Moreover, finds from Neolithic and Bronze Age sites from Bulgaria, Greece and Morocco turned out to be modern (not older than the 1950s).

And their morphology and stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen showed that they are more like modern broilers than ancient birds. A number of finds, originally dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, turned out to be medieval.

The oldest radiocarbon dates were obtained for materials from two Italian sites, Forcello and Orvieto, where the archaeological context pointed to the 6th–5th centuries BC. Radiocarbon analysis confirmed this, but the dates turned out to be quite wide and even covered the middle of the 8th century BC.

Scientists noted that they did not find any evidence that chickens were present in Europe before the 1st millennium BC. In addition, they refuted past claims that birds were bred in Northwest Africa (Morocco) as early as the 7th century BC. The examined bones showed that they belong to the 9th-12th centuries AD.

Scientists have suggested that chickens spread throughout Europe through the Mediterranean trade, which was carried out by the Greeks, Etruscans and Phoenicians. In cold regions – in Scotland, Ireland and Iceland and Scandinavia – heat-loving birds appeared almost a thousand years later than in the countries of Southern Europe.

For example, they ended up on the islands of Scotland only with the Vikings who arrived there – in the 9th century. In addition, the scientists reaffirmed past findings that in northern Europe, chickens were originally viewed more as exotics. The popularity of chicken meat and eggs as food came with the expanding Roman Empire.


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