The History of Chickens

Chickens are one of the earliest animals domesticated around the world. Though history tells us they were most likely originally kept as sporting birds, chickens have accompanied the advancement of human civilizations through the years.

| December 2014

Chickens can make a great addition to your farm or homestead. In How to Raise Poultry (Voyageur Press, 2011), Christine Heinrichs provides all of the information you need to know to successfully raise a flock of birds. This excerpt, which details the history of chickens, is from Chapter 1, “Chickens.”

The History of Chickens

Chickens are the domesticated Gallus that has accompanied the advancement of human civilization. Chickens were one of the earliest animals domesticated, no doubt in many places over time. They were likely domesticated in Southeast Asia as early as 8000 BC. The junglefowl that are their antecedents are so tempting they would certainly have attracted humans to catch and keep them.

Since the mists of prehistory, chickens have spread around the world. New evidence of domesticated chickens in South America adds strength to the idea that South Pacific Islanders and Polynesians made contact with the West Coast long before Columbus arrived from Europe on the East Coast.

Chickens were most likely originally kept as sporting birds, for fighting contests between game cocks. But they acquired religious and spiritual importance early in their journey with humans. Junglefowl crow in the morning, which associated them, in human minds, with the sun. Spiritually, they chased away the dark spirits of the night. Hens lay eggs year-round and raise multiple chicks, with one rooster leading a flock of hens, making them natural symbols of fertility. The solicitous behavior a hen exhibits toward her chicks resonates with our feelings of maternal love. Junglefowl inhabited the ecosystem created by humans. They foraged among hoofed livestock, scratched in dung piles, hunted insects in the fields. They foraged on everything left after the threshing of cereals and grains.

Small in size and adaptable to almost any climate, chickens were Everyman’s livestock. Even those who couldn’t afford to keep large animals such as horses and cattle could afford a small flock of chickens. Without requiring much attention from humans, they naturally raise their own replacements. With domestication came year-round egg-laying, which provided a food source as well as perpetuation of the flock. Chickens were suited not only to settled agrarian life, but they made productive companions on long journeys, whether crusade, war, or exploration. The fishermen of Southeast Asia raised a junglefowl hybrid called the Ayam Bekasir that had an especially long, loud crow, allowing them to stay in contact with other fishermen. Chickens made their way into every corner of human life. European traders returned to their home countries with the colorful birds of Asia. There, these Asian game birds and other breeds were bred into the European flocks, adding feather colors, types, and other characteristics.

The captive populations of birds gave their keepers the opportunity to exercise selective breeding. Chickens reproduce relatively rapidly, faster than dogs or cattle. Differences in color, feather quality, size, comb, and other characteristics emerged rapidly, resulting in the development of distinct breeds. Such individual flock changes might have first occurred accidentally; for example, an enclosed flock, bred over a couple of years, may have become dominated by red tails or long sickle feathers. As people observed their animals over time, they learned that they could influence their flock by choosing those birds with desirable characteristics as breeders, thus increasing those characteristics in their flocks.

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