The Long History of the Chicken

chicken hen face
Optional audio transcript

You are walking around in the grocery store when you realize that you need milk. It is stationed at the back of the store, awaiting your arrival for a pickup. You push your cart down the aisles, looking at food that you are questioning if you really want, regretting not eating lunch before you left the house. Reaching the back of the store where you see milk. You grab a gallon and notice sitting right next the milk are the eggs. You don’t question any of its history, but you might for the history of the chicken.

White, symmetrical, and perfectly clean eggs sitting in cardboard, waiting to be plucked from the refrigerator like a tulip in a field. You wonder, how many chickens did it take to produce so many eggs? Where are these chickens now? Do you also need to pick up some coffee? Do they have a new grocery tote on sale? What even are chickens? Your questioning brings you to a point where you must ask yourself a question. How did we get so far as to sell eggs by the dozen by an animal that clucks, eats corn, and angrily attacks people on YouTube?

There is a long history of the chicken and their domestication, but it isn’t all too complicated. Domestication, if you didn’t already know, means of taming and creating a more docile animal to aid humans in life. We, as humans, have domesticated dozens of species of animals and don’t plan to stop. This history of the domesticated chicken has a common trend amongst most domesticated animals.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The way humans have domesticated is to take an animal and slowly utilize it in everyday practices. Furthermore, make sure it sees you as a source for food and not a food source, and over time, make it a pet.

red junglefowl used in the history of the chicken
Red junglefowl from Wiktionary

Nature.com states in a January 2021 report of chicken domestication that the use of the chicken dates back much farther than previously thought, from the mere 2,000 BC to 6,000 BC. These chickens, known as Gallus gallus, the Red Junglefowl, originated originally from Southeast Asia. Only newer breeds really coming from Europe and Africa. Different breeds carry different traits, including:

  • color types
  • pattern types
  • egg sizes
  • egg color
  • docile ability

They were used as alarm clocks, food, rituals, and entertainment. 

A main source of entertainment that is seen over many different cultures is cockfighting. Starting at the point of domestication, Southeast Asia and constantly moving west, cockfighting was a major source of excitement. In Greece, it was a way to investigate bravery before a battle. They would use the back claw for these fights, and it was typically a bloody sight. Your normal Saturday now and a normal Saturday in 850 BC were not the same.

Cockfighting was used as a tool to evoke bravery before battle in ancient Greece. In other areas, chickens were revered as a spiritual dinner for the Romans. It exists in a plethora of scenes in the Bible, notating being especially important in prophecies. Even their crows were seen as sign, or sometimes just as an alarm clock, even though there is no scientific data on roosters knowing what time it is. I have personally heard that they crow in the morning to signify that they survived the night, but there is no quantifiable evidence of this. My own roosters do crow after being fed, after a hawk leaves the area, or whenever I fail to catch them.

So, there may be some small truth to that.

The history of the chicken is one that hasn’t changed the bird itself.

What you would think of a chicken looks like in the past hasn’t changed much in the 8,000 years of domestication. A leghorn (think Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes) doesn’t have that much difference in characteristics as a chicken from the Hellenistic period. They had the came red comb, crowed so loud that even roosters close their ears when they scream victory into the world, and came in many colors and sizes. Chickens first arrived in Africa about 950 BC and Europe around 800 BC. When they started going around the world, they flew into domestication and migration.  

Leghorn rooster, bell, showing history of the chicken
Leghorn rooster, Bell.

Now, overseas took a while because Europeans took a while to get there. Scientists estimate that chickens came to the other side of the planet around 700 AD at the very earliest. There is speculation that chickens arrived before Europeans did, arriving in Chile, South America. Gallus gallus most likely arrived a couple thousand years before Columbus, according to a June 2007 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, by Polynesians as it was seen as part of their way of living.

Since then, chickens have made their mark on human life and culture. We forever see them as food, pets, and entertainment, although you can agree that not all of it is humane. Domestication and morality are not always seen in the same light. It has gotten better since animal rights were established, but domestication was never meant to be about politics. It was about living with what was around you and how it can benefit your survival.

The history of the chicken continues to evolve

I personally have chickens and treat them fairly, especially when it comes to eating what they produce. But, what about the stores and their process? According to the National Chicken Council (I love that we have this), in the United States, most people in the 1800’s had some form of a backyard chicken flock. It was customary as it was a simple time and land restrictions didn’t exactly get enforced. By the 1920’s, meat production had boomed, and chickens were marketed in stores for their meat. Later, feed mills and hatcheries came in. By the 1980’s you could buy a 6 pack of chicken breasts at the store, USDA regulated and pumped full of genetically modified nutrition.

hen and her babies to illustrate history of the chicken
Hen and her babies

So, our ways of looking at a carton of eggs in the store is a new one compared to history, at least in the United States. The chicken has a thriving history, and we should expect more from them for years to come. In the recent years, backyard farming has come back for a spell. More and more people are returning to their roots for fresh eggs and meat. They are keeping the domesticated chicken in stock for many years to come. So, next time you have chicken parmesan or a nutritiously balanced breakfast, think of how far we have gone to get a near flightless bird across the continents to the table.

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