Humans have raised chickens for thousands of years. But it was only fairly recently in the scope of human evolution that we began eating them. Early chicken domesticators (starting in southeast Asia and China in the sixth millennium BCE) raised poultry for cockfighting and ritual uses, but a new study by archaeologists at the University of Haifa in Israel traces chicken’s culinary origins to Maresha, Israel as early as 400 BCE.
Archaeologists found an “unprecedented amount of chicken remains” in the ancient city, they write in the journal PNAS. In contrast to the few scattered remnants of poultry found in other ancient cities, they uncovered more than a thousand chicken bones in Maresha, suggesting that the residents were raising domestic fowl for more than just ceremonial use. And these weren’t just a few scattered wings; this place was like an ancient KFC. Female chicken remains outnumbered those from males, and they featured knife marks that indicated they were butchered. Some of the feet had been intentionally removed. All these signs provide evidence that these chickens were raised for meat.
Chicken bones found on the site, on a thematically appropriate plate.Image Credit: Perry-Gal et al., PNAS (2015)
Why the residents of Maresha decided to begin eating chicken when their neighbors had not yet discovered the joys of white meat (at least as far as archaeological evidence shows) is unknown. Chicken dinners didn’t become popular across Europe until a full century later. Maresha was along the trading routes between Asia and Europe, and it’s possible that after domestic chickens had been raised in the Mediterranean for some time (they arrived in the second millennium BCE, according to the researchers), they underwent changes that made them more alluring as a meal or more viable as livestock. Whatever the reason that chicken became a popular protein in the Middle East at that time, the rest of the Mediterranean and Europe would soon follow suit.