Over the last couple of posts we’ve being developing a picture of the ‘chicken’ in its earliest forms. We’ve looked at what its ancestors ‘in the wild’ were and where geographically it is likely to have originated from. We’ve considered how it became associated with humankind and why, and yet so far we haven’t really seen anything in terms of the chicken-human relationship that resembles anything like the existence the most numerous bird on the planet has today.
Cockfighting, whether you want to believe it or not, is most likely the reason that chickens became domesticated. Originating in the Far East, cockfighting became a popular ‘sport’ in fifth century BCE Greece. With such Greek popularity it was only a matter of time before the Romans adopted it. In turn, given their empire size, it is little wonder that it then spread through out Europe and inevitably beyond. This however wasn’t the only use the Romans had for chickens for they served the ‘Augurs’.
Augurs would engage in augury, a practice from ancient Roman religion were individuals were blessed with the art of divination by observing and reading the behaviour of birds. Such behaviours would be witnessed and interpreted, and this was known as “taking the auspices”. The word auspices is derived from the Latin auspicium and auspex which mean “divination” by those “who examine the movement of birds”.
The Augurs task would be to watch the movement of birds in order to obtain some guidance that to share their leaders as to whether a particular course of action would be looked upon favourably or unfavourably by the gods; whether it would be auspicious (conducive of success) or inauspicious (unpromising or unlucky).
Prior to the appearance of the chicken Augurs would have used the flight or song of certain bird species to divine by however when chickens reached the Romans the ‘dance’ of the birds began to be used. This usually revolved around their behaviour when presented with food and the auspices were read by interpreting the way in which the chickens approached the food. The fact the chicken was easily transported meant that they were usually used military movements and expeditions as they could be carried along with the other kit needed to support an army on the move – something the Romans did regularly and on all fronts of their empire.
It is said that the chickens were kept in crates and were placed under the charge of the Pullarius, the keeper of the sacred chickens. When the time came for some guidance from the gods, the Pullarius would open the cage of the chickens and then cast some seed or grain before them. If the chickens reacted in alarm, refused to come out, refused to eat or attempted to run or fly away then the omen was viewed as unfavourable. If, however they left the cage to eat the food that had been scattered before them, and to the point that food would fall from their mouths as they pecked ravenously at the food, then it was considered a favourable auspice and the action being questioned would in fact be conducive of success if taken. It is incredible to think that the humble chicken could have played such a pivotal role in the decision making of one of the largest most influential civilizations in history
Initial genetic studies seemed to suggest that modern chickens descended from those first domesticated in in different parts of Asia before then spreading to Europe and Africa where upon they made the hop across the ocean to the Americas. However some chicken bones excavated from the coast of Chile underwent a DNA analysis that suggests they are older than the arrival of the first Europeans. Furthermore the bones were found to more closely related to the Polynesian chicken strains than those bred in Europe. What does this mean? Well if it is in fact scientifically accurate then it would mean explorers from Polynesian reached the shores of the Americas a century before Columbus. There’s a piece of knowledge that would have knocked the wind out his sails had he known!
Whether fighting or pecking seeds, these birds were revered and held in high esteem by their owners. Fortunes could be made, and lives could be lost all because of a chicken so it is little wonder their early domesticated life was one of respect and in many cases a sacred existence; an existence far removed from factory farmed future.
Looking through the archaeological records and historical documents it would indicate that chickens were first domesticated not as we would expect, for culinary purposes, but for completely different reasons. Chickens today may now fulfill a purpose in our food chain but because of their long history of being a common feature of our everyday life it should come as no surprise that they have been absorbed into our culture.