Which came first, the chicken or the rice? New research suggests rice

Long before chicken became a near-universal meat option, it was an exotic curiosity, too prized to eat. That’s one curious suggestion in a pair of new scholarly research papers about the origin. Of the domesticated chicken, based on radiocarbon dating and hundreds of archeological digs worldwide, published Monday in Antiquity and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kill A Chicken

It was brave to kill a chicken in Iron Age Europe, even as late as the time of Homer. In the 800s BC because chickens were more like pets, exotica. That was too rare or important to be slaughtered for meat, this research concludes. Chickens had become almost venerated since they were lured down from trees by southeast Asians. Rice farmers, spread through trade to the Mediterranean and Africa. Eat a chicken in Iron Age Europe, and you risked the anger of some prehistoric Joe Exotic. Who had been feeding it, maybe even named it?

But the reward was high, two main sections of different but equally tasty meat, light, and dark. Delicate and robust, plus other bits like liver, heart, feet, brain, and thin skin that roasts into candy.

Universities Scientists

Scientists from British and European universities report the domestication of chickens. Took place in southeast Asia and coincided with rice cultivation, but not for the obvious reason, that they make a meal.

Rather, the reclamation of land for rice growing, with its slash and burn agricultural cycle. “May have attracted red junglefowl to human settlements and their immediate catchment,” the PNAS paper suggests. They call this the “Chicken-Rice Dispersal” theory.

Humans Central China

From there, chickens were spread by humans to central China and Mesopotamia no earlier than the late-second millennium BC. And Mediterranean Europe and Ethiopia by the first. Previous theories about a more ancient origin in the Indus Valley or northeast China are not backed by these new findings.


So, before it became a near-universal meat option and the most numerous and widely distributed domestic animal on Earth, chicken was an exotic curiosity, and prized as such. Remains of Gallus gallus domesticus are found unbutchered and uneaten in prehistoric tombs from Thailand, dated as far back as 1650 BC, to Italy, perhaps 700 years later. In several places across Europe, chickens appear individually buried, often as older animals. One hen found on Weston Down in England had a healed leg fracture, suggesting care. In England as in other places, chickens seem to have been kept for 800 years before people started eating them, encouraged it seems by Roman practices.

It really caught on. Today, a chicken in every pot is a mark of healthy civilization. It is as the late British restaurant critic AA Gill once wrote in a 2016 report from the refugee camp at Calais, France, at the peak of broader European migrant crisis, which he found was “beginning to become a place, with churches and theatres and art and restaurants. It is germinating into that collective home. But then, isn’t this how all places once began? With refugees stopping at a river, a beach, or a crossroads and saying, we’ll just pause here for a bit. Put on the kettle, kill a chicken.”

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