The chicken has been at our side for the last 10,000 years

Fighters, fortune-tellers... and food: How the humble chicken has been at our side for the last 10,000 years

Eddie Wrenn

Source -

Spare a thought next time someone serves chicken on the table - for humanity has been taking advantage of the feathered flightless birds for countless generations.

Evidence even suggests that cock-fighting, only banned in the state of Louisiana in the U.S. in 2008 but still continuing in other countries, is the world’s oldest continual sport.

However the geneaology of the domesticated chicken is a complicated one - stretching back up to 10,000 years - and it is possible that separate cultures domesticated the chickens at different times in history.

The Ancient Egyptians in 1500BC had 'the best that gives birth every day', and in their writings said the bird came from Babylonia - modern-day Iraq - but the heritage is much older than that.

What is known is that the Chinese had chickens back in around 5,400BC - and as the birds are non-native to that area due to the colder climate, they must have been imported, presumably domesticated, long before then.

Looking to South East Asia, the closes things to chickens in their wild form are found. Their Latin name is 'gallus gallus' and share similarities to our modern bird, such as the 'cock-a-doodle-doo' mating call and fighting spurs, and the inability to fly. 

But genetic sequencing show that - while gallus gallus had an input - there were other ancestors to our modern-day chicken.

Research shows that modern chickens inherited their yellow skin from the gray junglefowl of southern India, suggesting that gallus gallus perhaps spread from Asia, either North to China or West to India. 

Michael Zody, a geneticist at the MIT, told The Smithsonian that the DNA trial is inconclusive: 'Because domesticated and wild birds mixed over time, it’s really difficult to pinpoint.'

But one piece of DNA sequencing showed something interesting: Investigating a gene called TBC1D1, which regulates the metabololism of sugars, they discovered that a mutation caused a defect in chickens - which was of great benefit to mankind.

The gene - which also causes obesity in humans - should restrict the laying of eggs to breeding seasons, but the mutation leads to all-year-round egg-laying.


The walls of Pompeii honoured the bird, with at least one house honouring the bird in mosaic form

The Indus civilisation, one of the early great empires which ran from 3,300BC to 1,900BC, were one of the early peoples to take advantage of this, and as they spread around the middle east, they took the bird with them.

In around 1500BC, the bird came to Egypt - and was known as a fighter for the next 1,00 years. Only as we move towards 500BC is there evidence of the Egyptians incubating birds for both reproduction and food.

The Egyptians used huge 'ovens' - hundreds in a row - to incubate the birds, and kept their successful techniques a secret for hundreds of years.

When the Romans came to power, they brought the chickens with them - and the chicken was a status symbol for wealth.

The Romans also saw the birds as fortune-tellers, taking them to the edge of battle with them, and predicting the battle's based on a bird's appetite.

The Greeks admired the bird's fighting skills - The Smithsonian relates how, in the fifth century BC, the Athenian general Themistocles stopped to watch two cocks fighting, and told his troops: 'Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.'

Moving forward, when the Europeans found America - they found chickens in abundance, perhaps brought there by the ancient Polynesians in the centuries before Columbus.

So, wherever man has spread, he has taken chickens with him, at least for the last 10,000 years. Some cultures worship the birds, others respect their fighting skills, others see them purely as food.

But whatever the origins, or the cultural features attributed to the birds, they are one of the unsung heroes of our times, the birds who have done as much for our societies as the dog and horse.