Monday, October 17, 2011

chicken domestication in China

8,000 year old chicken bones have been uncovered at the Cishan site, in the northern province of Hebei, China. The archaeologists argue they are domestic fowl because they are somewhat larger than wild jungle fowl, but still smaller than modern chickens.

It's not clear how many chicken bones were recovered. I get the impression that there weren't very many. Given the sample, I don't want to make too much of the find. Still, I was struck by this quote:

Several bone fragments were identified to be from domesticated chickens, said Qiao Dengyun, head of the Handan Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology...Qiao said the bone fossils date back to 6,000 BC, earlier than the oldest domesticated chicken previously discovered in India that dated back 4,000 years.

"Most of the bones were from cocks, indicating that ancient residents used the practice of killing cocks for their meat and raising hens for their eggs," said Qiao.

If a site was occupied for a long time, then hens should still be found, even if their average life is much longer than that of cocks. If we find a strong sex bias in the chicken remains from many early Neolithic sites, we may want to re-think the original purpose of chicken domestication, or at least of chicken capturing. Sex biases could reflect a variety of cultural processes and values. For example, there is a bias toward male macaws in the Southwest that is thought to represent macaw breeding monopolies in sites to the south (southern traders kept the females and only traded out the males). Perhaps a male bias in chickens suggests they were first kept for fighting purposes, rather than food. Or perhaps they were display/ritual animals, or kept for their feathers, like red-tail hawks (again, in the Southwest.) This could account for the larger size, but not through selection, rather through the focused capture of larger wild males.

Lots of food for thought here. It will be nice to see more data.

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