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article imageA discarded chicken bone tells the story of early domestication

By Karen Graham     Nov 4, 2016 in Science
A discarded chicken bone, human teeth marks clearly etched into it from a meal thousands of years ago, is physical proof of the introduction of domesticated chickens on the African continent, researchers have confirmed.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, using radiocarbon dating on about 30 chicken bones unearthed at the site of an ancient farming village in what is now Ethiopia, found that chickens may have come to Africa's shores earlier than previously thought.
Their findings suggest that chickens arrived on the African continent about 300 years earlier than previously thought. The findings also shed some light on how and when the chicken crossed ancient roads and seas to reach farms in Africa and eventually to grace the dinner tables of homes in every corner of the globe.
The new study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, pushes that date back by centuries and also suggests that the initial introduction could have happened on the east rather than north coast of Africa.
"Our study provides the earliest directly dated evidence for the presence of chickens in Africa and points to the significance of Red Sea and East African trade routes in the introduction of the chicken," said lead author Heline Woldekiros, a postdoctoral anthropology researcher in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, in a press release.
Most of our chickens today are descended from a wild form of chicken, called red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), still found today in sub-Himalayan northern India, southern China and southeast China. These fowls were first domesticated 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.
Actually, how the chicken reached Africa has always been somewhat of a mystery to scientists. Relying on pictures of chickens on ceramics and paintings, along with chicken bones from a few archaeological sites, it was assumed that chickens were introduced to the continent through North Africa, Egypt, and the Nile Valley about 2,500 years ago.
Map showing where the ancient farming village was in Ethiopia.
Map showing where the ancient farming village was in Ethiopia.
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology
The bottom line is this: the actual bone-based evidence of chickens in Africa was from the Saite levels at Buto, Egypt, and the bones dated to around 685 and 525 BCE. But the new study suggests that domesticated chickens arrived in Africa several centuries earlier than that, and it was through East Africa.
"Some of these bones were directly radiocarbon dated to 819-755 B.C., and with charcoal dates of 919-801 B.C. make these the earliest chickens in Africa,” explained Woldekiros. The new findings predate the Egyptian chickens by at least 300 years and highlight the integration of domestic animals into society in the early first millennium B.C.
Interestingly, a study of the root words for "chicken" in different African languages suggests the birds arrived through a number of different routes. Genetic studies also back this up, revealing the biodiversity of chickens as they further became domesticated.
Woldekiros says, "Our archaeological findings help to explain the genetic diversity of modern African chickens resulting from the introduction of diverse chicken lineages coming from early Arabian and South Asian countries and later Swahili networks.”
But in the broader sense, the study on the lowly domesticated chicken adds context to the story of the human race. We have added to our knowledge of ancient migration, trade and the exchange of ideas, and most importantly, the spread of agriculture and the domestication of farm animals.
“Our study also supports the African Red Sea coast as one possible early route of introduction of chickens to Africa and the Horn,” Woldekiros said. “It fits with ways in which maritime exchange networks were important for the global distribution of chicken and other agricultural products."
More about Chickens, earliest domestication, human migration, Red sea, Africa
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