A synopsis of the chicken throughout history
The history of the chicken starts approximately 7,000 years ago. While in the depths of an Asian jungle, the Red Junglefowl, oblivious to its future and profound, yet subtle effect on humans, joyfully pecked and scratched at the jungle floor in search insects, seeds and fallen fruit. Today, the chicken and its progeny, due to their robust and prolific nature, enjoy a rich and robust history whose wings-and tasty meat-cover the entirety of the globe.
Chicken is the ubiquitous food of our era, crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease.-Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler - Smithsonian magazine, June 2012
From its early domestication in Asia around 5400 B.C, the chicken finally reaches the Mediterranean and Southeastern Europe. Egyptians initially use chickens for cock fighting rather than food. Later, Egyptians create chicken specialists-a precursor to today’s factory chicken farmer-who developed artificial incubation techniques, involving the burning of camel dung and straw to warm and incubate the fertilized eggs; techniques which were regarded as sacred and kept secret for centuries.
The history of the chicken expands in that Greek fables involving chickens astound those in and around the Grecian world. Chicken is considered a delicacy and prestigious food, adorning tables at the various symposia-drinking parties-the Greeks held. The island of Delos, an important chicken breeding area, is esteemed of the Greeks. Pictures of roosters and hens adorn Greek pottery.
Romans create the public position of pullarius, who cared for chickens that were to be used as oracles. Hens, if they entered from the left, were considered a favorable omen. Roman general Publius Claudius Pulcher keeps a sacred flock of chickens for divination purposes. Before doing battle with the Carthaginians at Drepana, Publius observed his sacred flock of chickens did not eat, which was considered an unfavorable omen. He then had the chickens thrown overboard, stating, “If they will not eat, perhaps they will drink.” Publius in turn lost 93 Roman barges that were either captured or sunk and ultimately lost the battle. The history of the chicken endures a comical setback with chickens being blamed for the loss of an important battle. Plubius, upon his return to Rome, was fined and charged with sacrilege for having the chickens thrown overboard.
In 162 BC, the Lex Faunia, an agricultural law, prohibited Romans from fattening hens to conserve grain rations. Adding to the already robust history of the chicken, Romans create capons, a castrated rooster, in order to circumnavigate the Lex Faunia, which resulted in a doubling of size of the bird without having to feed it more grain.
Jesus of Nazareth adds a sacred chapter to the history of the chicken and makes the following allegory of himself to the scribes and Pharisees, “…how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37) Later, Christ prophesizes to his apostle Peter saying: “…I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.” (Luke 22:34).
One would theorize that because of the collapse of Roman society, Roman agriculture knowledge and practices, that the history of the chicken would end here, waning in favor with ignorant, medieval Europeans. However, as a result of Jesus’ allegories and prophecies involving chickens, and the increasing spread of Christianity through medieval Europe, Pope Gregory I made the rooster the symbol of Christianity. Later, by way of papal decree, Pope Nicholas I order the symbol of the rooster to be placed on the top of every church steeple throughout Christendom. The history of the chicken continues, is promoted and gains favor throughtout Europe because of early Christian beliefs.
Polynesian mariners spread the age old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” as far as the Easter Islands. Additionally, Polynesians constructed sturdy chicken coops made of stone to house their chickens, one the most industrious and productive farm animals around. With the Polynesian-chicken Diaspora, the chicken truly became “the chicken of the sea” and was prized not only for its colorful plumage, but also its meat, eggs and utility in keeping an agricultural area clean and fruitful.
1492-1928 The Americas
Upon immigrating and settling in the Americas, many Europeans opted for the plentiful and easily accessible ducks and turkeys instead of raising large flocks of chickens. However, that is not to say they abandoned the flighty, mighty chicken altogether. Some new world farmers kept small flocks to sustain them. Albeit, the process of raising a chicken to fruition was slow and precarious, for many a chicken flock was susceptible to marauding thieves, wild animals and disease. Eventually, a new breed of chicken prized for its hardiness and multipurpose arose in the tiny state of Rhode Island: The Rhode Island Red. A stalwart chicken breed blesses the pantheon of chicken gods with its presence and adds a great chapter in the annals of chicken history.
Deemed a delicacy and a culinary prize representing prosperity, the Republican Party used the chicken in their 1928 slogan, “A chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard to boot."-Republican Party Campaign Ad. New York World, 30 October 1928. Who would have thought that the great book of the history of the chicken would ever contain a page on politics?
With the discovery and implementation of antibiotics and vitamins, chickens were no longer as susceptible to disease as they once had been. U.S. farmers no longer needed to keep chickens in small flocks and soon discovered that chickens were more profitable than beef. Whereas it takes 7 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of beef, it only takes less than 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of chicken. In the 1990s, chicken surpassed beef as the main source of protein in an American’s diet. Annually Americans consume over 80 pounds of chicken per capita. With their simple, yet infectiously prolific nature, chickens tout a worldwide population of over 25 billion, 10 billion of which call the United States of America home. Currently, there are more chickens in the world than any other species of bird. Indeed, many chapters, nay many books are added to the anthology of the history of the chicken in the 20th century alone; more than any preceeding century combined.
From their humble beginnings in a steamy jungle in Southeast Asia to being the cornerstone of an entire industry, the question that is always asked of a chicken is, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And the response the chicken gives is ever so simple and answers the question completely: To get to the other side of the road.