Chicken and rice is always nice

Ruth Griffiths

Rice is a great addition to homemade chicken soup but you might be surprised that the association of rice and chicken goes back thousands of years.

Archaeologists have reviewed fossil chicken bones and DNA to show that chickens were domesticated about 7,000 years ago in Thailand only after humans began cultivating rice within range of the wild red jungle fowl.

Most scientists agree that the Southeast Asian Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is the primary wild ancestor of chickens. However, other wild fowl have contributed to the genetics of modern chickens. A July 2022 article by Ann Gibbons says the oldest bones of likely chicken ancestors came from a site called Ban Non Wat in central Thailand, where farmers grew rice 3,250 to 3,650 years ago. Farmers buried many skeletons of young members of the genus Gallus as grave goods along with other domesticated animals—strong evidence that these birds were domesticated chickens, rather than wild jungle fowl. Researchers propose that the rice seeds drew wild jungle fowl to rice fields, where the birds nested in thickets at the edge of the fields and got used to humans.

As the scientists traced the trail of chicken bones across Asia into the Middle East and Africa, they found a “striking” correlation between the spread of dry rice farming, millet, and other grains—and the appearance of chickens. Chickens appeared about 3,000 years ago in northern China and India, the team found, and about 2,800 years ago in the Middle East and Northeast Africa.

The first chickens in Europe were found in an Etruscan site in Italy 2,800 years ago.

The study is backed up by historical records, too—including the Bible. “Chickens don’t feature in the Old Testament,” says the study’s lead author Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter. “They burst onto the scene in the New Testament.”

For example, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus features a rooster crowing when Peter denies knowing Jesus.

It took another 1.000 years before chickens spread north to Britain (with the Romans), Scandinavia, and Iceland. At first they were prized for their plumage and propensity for crowing at dawn, but 50 years after being introduced to a culture they were used for egg and meat production.

Even though chickens were domesticated later than other animals, they have become the most successful domesticated species on the planet. Today, at 80 billion strong, they outnumber us 10 to 1.