His­tory of the Hen

By Andy Cawthray

Your Chickens - - Contents -

Ever since I first be­came in­volved with chick­ens I have been fas­ci­nated by them — not just by the chick­ens we see to­day, but also by how we got to the breeds we see in the mod­ern world. I know 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 and how did it evolve into the re­la­tion­ship we share with these birds 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 its stages of do­mes­ti­ca­tion; how it fits into our cul­ture; the sig­nif­i­cance of the late 19th Cen­tury; the rise of the early pure breeds; its most re­cent his­tory as a hy­brid; and what the fu­ture might hold.

So where do we start? Re­search sug­gests that the best place 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 South East Asia. These jungle fowl — 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 prob­a­ble 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 him­self and his hen (or hens), and he would have found 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 un­think­able that the chick­ens would have de­vel­oped a trust of their keep­ers and, over time, be­come com­par­a­tively tame. This would con­se­quently 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 prob­a­bly also have re­sulted in early breed­ing pro­grammes as prog­eny of suc­cess­ful cocks would have been hatched and reared us­ing a suit­able fe­male.

Each gen­er­a­tion of chick­ens will have car­ried through cer­tain at­tributes from its par­ents, one of which will have been the trust and al­most sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with hu­mans. Sur­pris­ingly this process was not founded on meat and eggs, but on what would then have been seen as a game or sport.


The do­mes­ti­ca­tion of the chicken (be­low) came sur­pris­ingly late. The ear­li­est proven ev­i­dence of do­mes­tic chick­ens has been un­cov­ered in China and dates back to 5400BCE. This is later than the dog, cat, pig, sheep, goat and cow, but be­fore the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of the horse and don­key. Be­ing later than our main meat sources of pig, sheep, goat and cow also in­di­cates that chicken as a source of food was per­haps not the orig­i­nal rea­son for do­mes­ti­ca­tion. Fur­ther re­search con­firms that the do­mes­tic chicken (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 the orig­i­nal source, with Charles Dar­win fall­ing down on the side of the red jungle fowl. Re­cent stud­ies, though, have at­trib­uted the ten­dency for yel­low skin in chick­ens as be­ing due 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 was do­mes­ti­ca­tion 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 propen­sity to do­mes­ti­ca­tion. 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 im­por­tant of all, they can im­print at birth, mean­ing that the first thing they see can fre­quently be adopted as a mother, be that an­other hen that is not the mother or even a hu­man. This early and, in many ways, al­most co­in­ci­den­tal re­la­tion­ship de­vel­oped be­tween hu­man and fowl over the fol­low­ing cen­turies and marked the start of what would be a colour­ful his­tory in more ways than one.

NEXT MONTH: The early his­tory of the chicken.

Much de­bate still re­volves around which is the orig­i­nal source, with Charles Dar­win fall­ing down on the side of the red jungle fowl. Re­cent stud­ies, though, have at­trib­uted the ten­dency for yel­low skin in chick­ens as be­ing due to a gene car­ried by the grey jungle fowl

ABOVE: Re­search sug­gests that the process of do­mes­ti­ca­tion be­gan 10,000 years ago on the jungle fowl of South East Asia LEFT & BE­LOW: The jungle fowl orig­i­nally came from lo­ca­tions like these, but was sur­pris­ingly adapt­able to changes in weather and cli­mate

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