From jungle bird to fast-food dinner: new project to explore history of chickens

Image University of Leicester

Researchers are hoping to shed light on how the relationship between people and chickens has developed over the past 8,000 years.

By examining modern and ancient chicken bones and exploring archaeological sites across Europe, a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and geneticists intends to trace the history of chickens.

The study will be led by the University of Bournemouth, but will involve collaborations with the universities of Nottingham, Roehampton, Durham, Leicester and York.

The team will examine when and how rapidly domesticated chickens spread across Europe, and study the history of their exploitation for meat and eggs.

The project will also investigate the ancient and modern cultural significance of the birds in religious rituals and cockfighting.

The interdisciplinary project has been made possible by a £1.94 million grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the Science In Culture Awards Large Grants call. 

Dr Richard Thomas from the University of Leicester told historyextra: “Chickens are the most widespread domestic animal on the planet – today there are well over 20 billion worldwide, yet we still know very little about their social and cultural history.

“Today, our attitudes towards chickens are complex – from the rituals of the roast dinner on Sunday and the convenience of fast food, to named birds kept in backyards and depersonalised industrial units of production.

“Chickens are important: economically, environmentally, culturally and socially – from cultural and religious symbols to disease vectors that could potentially result in a global pandemic.

“The chicken is a jungle bird descended from the wild jungle fowl of south-east Asia, so its universality today is perhaps surprising. We not only want to untangle the story of the chicken, but also show how our perception of this bird has changed through space and time.”

Research is due to get underway in January 2014 and will be completed in 2017, coinciding with The Chinese Year of the Rooster.

Findings will be shared widely, including with poultry breeders and schoolchildren. The results will also form the basis a series of exhibitions in museums throughout the UK making up ‘The Chicken Trail’ that will tell the story of the spread of chicken in Europe.

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