A chicken coup

On 6 June, an article was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled ‘The biocultural origins and dispersal of domestic chickens’. The research involved 600 archaeological sites in 89 countries, and centred on where this bird was first domesticated. Now this is quite a significant topic for humanity when you look at the figures. Currently, there are about 25.9 billion domestic chickens on Earth, compared with 1 billion cattle, 1.1 billion sheep, 1 billion goats, and 784 million pigs. Getting on for 70 billion chickens are slaughtered annually, a figure growing sharply year by year, compared with about 302 million cattle and 784 million pigs. Far more chicken meat is eaten than any other animal, with pork coming a distant second. And raising chickens has a tiny carbon footprint when compared with other domestic animals.

Right Ban Non Wat from the air. The excavations took place under the tall central building with a yellow roof.
Ban Non Wat from the air. The excavations took place under the tall central building with a yellow roof.

These facts place the humble chicken fairly and squarely in the spotlight for any study of the Neolithic Revolution and its implications. Where was this productive bird first domesticated, when, and under what circumstances? Until I read the article, I must confess that I was not only ignorant of the answers, but also had never given the issue much contemplation. Somehow, when studying the faunal remains from sites I have excavated, it has always been the big animals, like cattle, water buffalo, and deer, that have taken precedence. I have worked on the prehistory of South-east Asia now for 52 years, so imagine my interest when I read that the chicken was domesticated from the jungle fowl in my own backyard. What began as a frisson soon turned into a paean of pride. Apparently, my Thai colleague Rachanie Thosarat and I have found the world’s earliest domestic chicken, dated from c.1650 BC, at the site of Ban Non Wat in North-east Thailand. My head swam. Will we soon find ourselves in The Guinness Book of Records, offered a medal ceremony, perhaps, from the World Chicken Producers Forum? I eagerly anticipate invitations to speak across America, appearances on The Late Show, a visit to 10 Downing Street.

Which came first?

I have often referred to our ten seasons at the fabulous site of Ban Non Wat. Viewed from the air, it is a typical small village community of North-east Thailand. The largest building is the site museum and study centre, built right over our main excavation square. When we began digging, I confidently anticipated a Late Iron Age occupation, but as we delved deeper, so we encountered six phases of Bronze Age burials overlying two phases of Neolithic associated with middens dating back to about 1700 BC. To gild the lily, we then discovered an even lower shell midden, an infant burial, and deer skeleton dating back to about 15,000 BC. The early chicken bones came from the Neolithic occupation. We thus have the when, but still ask: why?

The big picture has identified the origins of rice-domestication in the Yangtze River region. It took millennia, but the sequence culminated in the rise of the Liangzhu civilisation, and the progressive expansion of rice-farming communities west, east, north, and south. By about 2400 BC, we can trace the penetration of rice farmers into South-east Asia along several routes. One was coastal, others followed the lines of least resistance along river courses. Where these communities chose to settle on the estuaries and other coastal enclaves, they found that saline conditions did not support the cultivation of rice, and there was a reversal in favour of marine hunting and gathering. Inland settlement, as at Ban Non Wat, presented quite different prospects, for the monsoon rains were tailor-made for rice to flourish.

One of the hallmarks of early Ban Non Wat was the number of stone adzes, and doubtless these facilitated forest-clearance for the creation of rice fields. Let’s think of the impact that would have had on the jungle fowl. It is now winter in New Zealand, and we have feeding stations on the deck. These contain honey water within an orange container with three small holes sealed by a movable yellow bead. By thrusting their beaks at the bead, birds can get in and feast on the honey. How do they learn this trick?

left This 11 year old from Noen U-Loke was buried with a complete hen’s egg, placed beside the left arm.
This 11 year old from Noen U-Loke was buried with a complete hen’s egg, placed beside the left arm.

The lesson is that birds are very intelligent and innovative. In an experimental programme I once watched on the television, it was found that two birds, the crow and the New Zealand kea, head the list for IQ. The crow is a toolmaker, who uses crumbs as bait when it goes fishing. They can recognise different human faces, and count. The kea is an Alpine parrot whose antics delight and infuriate tourists when they swoop on vehicles in the ski-field car parks to pinch food. Apparently, they are quicker on the uptake than our ape cousins. The jay is pretty bright too: it makes tools out of paper to secure food temptingly placed out of reach beyond its cage. So for the jungle fowl, swooping down on a field of ripening grain would have been a breeze for them and a pain for the early rice farmer. Brought into such contact, it seems that the problem was at least partially resolved by capture and domestication.

This set off at least two questions for me. The rice-field attraction model can be tested in at least two ways. If rice was not grown by the coastal-route farmers, there should be no domestic chickens in their middens. I opened Volume 2 of our reports on the great Neolithic mound of Khok Phanom Di, located as it had been on a mangrove estuary. There we identified many birds – oriental darter, pelican, crane, godwit, heron, dusky broadbill, ibis/spoonbill, cormorant, painted stork, and teal. There were just two chicken bones. An email to a colleague conversant with the Vietnamese Neolithic revealed an absence of chicken bones.

We think that the first rice farmers to penetrate South-east Asia spoke a proto- Austroasiatic language. There are now many such languages scattered in groups from India to Vietnam. I emailed my friend Paul Sidwell with a question: which of these many languages share the name for a ‘chicken’? The answer was revealing: the same word is found in inland languages, and not in the Munda groups of India or in Vietnamese. Both responses supported the rice farmer–jungle fowl symbiosis.

The chicken seems to have had enduring significance to the prehistoric people of Ban Non Wat and related sites. As early as 1981, we uncovered at Ban Na Di a young Bronze Age girl buried with a complete chicken as a mortuary offering. A contemporary grave at Ban Non Wat contained an elite man, interred with a rich array of offerings – copper axes, chisels, an awl, splendid pots, exotic shell and marble jewellery, and a complete chicken beside his left ankle.

An infant who died at birth during the fourth Bronze Age phase was interred with a hen’s egg over the left hand; perhaps the infant was holding it when placed in the grave. And at nearby Noen U-Loke, a complete egg was found by the left hand of a child who died when aged about 11-12 years. The recognition of something so fragile speaks volumes of the unparalleled skill of my women village excavators. What better symbol can be found for the regeneration of life itself than an egg? I find myself getting close to the cognitive world of the extinct society that we have had the privilege of engaging with. There is no doubting my conviction that those remote prehistoric people were as engaged with the afterlife as is the modern Christian.

My study overlooks a parkland setting where our neighbours have recently set up a hen coop where a dozen chickens and chanticleer contentedly range freely. My brother lives next door, and he too has half a dozen chickens, rescued from a battery farm. They wander across the fields, occasionally visit us, and are quite relaxed when I pick one up and stroke its warm feathers. Now I can, quite unexpectedly, relate these birds to the distant past at Ban Non Wat, and their remote ancestors. And whenever you eat your bacon and eggs, just thank those early South-east Asian rice farmers for their contribution to our wellbeing.

Charles Higham is a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand, and an authority on Cambodia's Angkor civilisation and Ban Non Wat in Thailand.