Chickens and People: Past, Present and Future (Oxford conference - research findings)

25 January 2017

ON: Friday 27 January and Saturday 28 January 2017
VENUE: University of Oxford Natural History, Parks Rd, Oxford, OX1 3PW
TIME: Friday 9.30-5:30pm and Saturday 2.00-4.00pm

Oxford University will host a conference to reveal preliminary research findings from a three-year AHRC-funded project that looks at how humans have interacted with and bred chickens over thousands of years. The project, Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions, was awarded £1.9m to answer a number of different questions. The conference will have presentations from 25 researchers from six UK universities answering some of them after deploying a variety of scientific and humanities research approaches including (but not limited to) stable isotopes, radiocarbon dating, ethnography, zooarchaeology, ecological modelling, ancient DNA, proteomics, and studies of iconography, and historical texts. Highlights of the project include:

1) Why did the chicken cross the Globe?
Contrary to expectations, the team found that chickens were not domesticated in and transported from Southeast Asia as a source of food, but rather for cultural and spiritual reasons unrelated to their primary modern role a source of protein. There is good evidence to suggest that they were initially considered special animals and symbols of power. The strength and warrior-like nature of cockerels, in particular their use in cock-fighting, appears to have motivated the spread of chickens into Bronze and Iron Age Europe. The Romans - as lovers of blood-sports - were particularly keen on cock-fighting but they also used chickens in religious ceremonies, as sacrifices to gods such as Mercury and Mithras. But in some communities, chickens were valued as individuals, and many were afforded human-style burials. Other communities employed different funerary rites, with human-chicken co-burials, and the team have investigated some of these in detail. 

2) Co-burials of humans and their feathered friends
One of the project’s first discoveries resulted from the team’s collaborative work on an Avar period (7th/8th-century) cemetery from Wien-Csokorgasse in Austria. The cemetery contained hundreds of human burials. All of them contained grave goods: some were richly furnished, others less so, but one of the most common offerings was the chicken. Initially, the cemetery’s excavators had dismissed the chickens simply as ‘food offerings’ - a projection of modern attitudes back onto the past. However, zooarchaeological investigations demonstrated little evidence that these animals had been eaten. Furthermore, closer examination revealed that, far from being randomly deposited, the burials were gendered: women were interred with hens and men with cockerels. To test the hypothesis that close human-chicken relations existed at Wien-Csokorgasse, the team submitted a selection of the chickens for stable isotope analyses to compare the diet of the humans and the chickens. Surprisingly, when the chicken data were connected to those for the individuals with whom they were buried, the team found a direct correlation in the ranking of the d15N values (which reveal the quality of dietary protein): chickens with high values were interred with high-ranking humans, whereas chickens with lower d15N values were interred with similarly low-ranking people. In effect, the humans and the chickens mirror each other in dietary terms, suggesting that relationships between the two were very close indeed: the people knew the chickens that they were buried with. 

Whilst for the Pagan Avars, chickens represented more than just food, things changed rapidly with the rise of Christianity - the impact of which will also be explored at the conference. 

3) Chickens were the original fast food - Christianity, AD1000 and chicken domestication genes
A previous study identified a so-called ‘domestication gene’ in chickens that differentiates all domestic birds from their progenitor, the wild red junglefowl. This gene, called TSHR, is involved in numerous traits including the ability of chickens to produce eggs throughout the year. We applied a statistical test to ascertain the starting date of selection on this gene and expected the result would point towards the origins of domestication about 5,000 years ago. Instead, our analysis of nearly 100 ancient chicken bones revealed that the selection pressure on TSHR didn’t start until AD1000.

Intriguingly, this period coincides with two major societal and dietary changes in chicken husbandry. First, the Benedictine Monastic Order disallowed the consumption of meat from four-legged animals during fasting periods, but they allowed people to eat birds and eggs. Perhaps related to this, archaeological assemblages across Europe reveal a substantial increase in the frequency of chicken remains between the 9th and 12th centuries AD. The coincidence between the new dietary rules, the archaeological record, and our genetic results suggests that the modern proliferation of the domestic TSHR gene is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. This result also reveals that the relationship between people and chickens has been dynamic, and more generally, that relatively recent changes in human-animal interactions can radically shift the evolution of domestic animals over short periods of time. Indeed, the last 50 years have seen dramatic, and accelerating, changes - some of which have implications for the future.

4) Food security and resilience
A fundamental strength of the project has been the team’s ability to examine, from an interdisciplinary perspective, how human-chicken relationships have changed over millennia. This deep-time data exploration has revealed just how extensively humans have transformed the chicken, particularly over the last 50 years. And the results give cause for concern. Whereas in the past, chicken populations were characterised by diversity - in terms of their genetic make-up, diet, size, and shape - today, Western commercial stock are remarkably homogenous. To meet growing demands for meat consumption, breeders have striven to produce the optimum chicken: one that converts feed to carcass weight in the shortest possible time. Selective breeding has resulted in a lack of diversity but, in turn, this equates to a lack of resilience - if one of these chickens gets sick and dies, there is a high probability others will rapidly follow suit. The widespread use of antibiotics to pre-empt infectious diseases may alleviate problems in the short-term but is simultaneously contributing to antibiotic resistance and there is a risk that both chicken and human populations in the West may be susceptible to pandemics. In the future, we may need help (and new stock!) from countries that have retained the more traditional, diverse, and resilient chicken breeds. Such as those that are widespread in Africa. 

5) Going Places: Empowering Women, Enhancing Heritage and Increasing Chicken Production in Ethiopia
While the conference marks the end of the large-scale chicken project, it also marks the beginning of the team’s new project ‘Going Places’, which is funded by the AHRC through the Global Challenges Research Fund. This project builds upon the anthropological research the team has been conducting in Ethiopia. This work made them familiar with a well-known Amharic proverb translated as ‘Women and chickens rise early in the morning, but they have nowhere to go’. They now aim to help address this widespread issue of female socio-economic immobility. Through collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute, the National Museum of Ethiopia and the Africa Programme, the Going Places project is conducting female-centred cultural and scientific research into chicken husbandry, past and present, to support Ethiopia’s future economic and heritage development.

The project has equally been working to enhance heritage and cultural appreciation in the UK and, as part of this, the team have been working closely with staff and pupils from the City of London Academy (CoLA), who are responsible for the monumental and thought-provoking artwork that will also be on display in the museum.

Art Installation at the Oxford University Museum

The conference will also feature a 25’ high chicken, Dinnersaurus rex, that will be displayed next to its cousin, the T-rex.

Dinnersaurus rex was made by the CoLA pupils, under the direction of artist Ben Frimet. It is a memorial to the chicken’s descent – both from its dinosaur origins and in terms of its fall into mass exploitation. With chickens now being selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, it won’t be too many decades before they reach dino-size.

Saturday 28th
The end of the project coincides, rather fittingly, with the Chinese Year of the Rooster. To mark this special year, the team is launching the ‘Chicken Trail’. This digital exhibition will reveal how the story of chickens is the story of people, charting the spread of global cultures, the rise and fall of ideologies and empires, as well human impact on the planet. It will present tales that intrigue, some that terrify, and others that inspire hope – as it is becoming clear that chickens may be the key to helping some of the most vulnerable people in our modern-day communities and cultures.

Follow the team on Twitter @Chicken_Project for weekly research reports. For further information, contact the University of Oxford News Office on [email protected] or phone: +44 (0)1865 280534. Alternatively contact the Co-Principal Investigators Greger Larson ([email protected]) or Naomi Sykes ([email protected])

Notes for Editors: