The origins and early evolution of the domestic chicken
Ever since I first got involved with chickens I’ve been fascinated by them, not just the chicken we see today, but also how we got to the chicken we see today. I knew from my own relatively short history on planet earth that chicken breeds and the concept of ‘chicken’ to the average member of the public has changed dramatically during my half century existence, but what did chicken history look like from the absolute beginning to the relationship we share with them today?
In this new series I hope to uncover some of this history and follow the journey this humble flightless bird has taken. I will look at how it came to be intertwined with humans and reached the stages of domestication. How it fits within our culture and the significance of the late 19th Century. The rise of the early pure breeds, along with its most recent history as a hybrid, and what the future might hold.
Where do we start? Research suggests that it would be around 10,000 years ago as this was when the process of domestication is thought to have begun on the jungle fowl of Southeast Asia. These jungle fowl, and in particular the males, or cocks, would viciously protect their territory against any other chickens thinking of taking up residence, or perish the thought, taking his partner. It is distinctly probably that such behaviours will have been witnessed by humans and that a certain amount of pleasure was gained from observing such ‘fights’.
The top fighters will have been encouraged to come closer to the potential ‘owning settlement’ with scraps of feed, bugs and grain. This will likely have worked to the advantage of the cock who would have access to easy pickings in terms of food for him and his hen (or hens), and have provided a level of protection against predation by being in the proximity of a human settlement. In time a relationship will have started to establish itself; the human having a source of ‘entertainment’ and the chickens having a source of protection and food.
As relatively sociable creatures it is not unsurmountable that they would develop a trust of their ‘keepers’ and over time become comparatively tame. Consequently this would have led to early forms of organised cockfighting where people from different settlements would pit their birds against each other in a bloodthirsty battle. It would have probably also resulted in early breeding programmes as progeny of successful cocks will have been hatched and reared using a suitable female.
Each generation of chickens will have carried through certain attributes from the parents, one will have been the trust and almost symbiotic relationship with humans. A process that surprisingly was not founded on meat and eggs but on what would then have been seen as a ‘game’ or ‘sport’.
Interestingly chickens were not very early in terms of domestication with earliest proven evidence of domestic chickens uncovered in China dating back to 5400 BCE. This is later than the dog, cat, pig, sheep, goat and cow, but before the domestication of the horse and donkey. By being later than our main meat sources of pig, sheep, goat and cow also indicates that chickens as a source of food was perhaps not their original reason for domestication.
Further research confirms that the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) evolved from jungle fowl, and probably from one of the four different species, namely the grey, green, red and Ceylon jungle fowl. Much debate still revolves around which is fact the original source with Charles Darwin falling down on the side of the red jungle fowl. Recent studies though have attributed the propensity for yellow skin in chickens is down to a gene carried by the grey jungle fowl. It is incredible to think that such variety in modern chicken breeds could have evolved from just four possible candidates, never mind a single species.
But is domestication that really that easy and if so why aren’t other species of animal now domesticated? Was it simply a food and shelter relationship? In truth jungle fowl had, and still have a number of traits that gives them a proneness to being domesticated; they can forage for tiny seeds and eat grass and invertebrates that would be too small or unpalatable to humans. This means no competition for food. They are also surprisingly adaptable to weather and changes in climate despite being jungle dwelling creatures originally. However perhaps most of all, they can imprint at ‘birth’ meaning the first thing see can frequently be adopted as ‘mother’ be that another hen that is not its mother, or a human. This early, and in many ways almost coincidental relationship developed between human and fowl over the coming centuries and marked the start of what would be a colourful history in more ways than one.