History of the Hen
By Andy Cawthray
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