Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken bones found at a site she and her colleagues believe was populated by the first community to eat the fowl. Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken bones found at a site she and her colleagues believe was populated by the first community to eat the fowl. Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken bones found at a site she and her colleagues believe was populated by the first community to eat the fowl. (Photo: Guy Bar-Oz)

When chickens went from fighters to food

New discovery pinpoints the ancient town of Maresha as place where people began eating poultry.

Long before it inspired a dance style, had its good name appropriated for use as a putdown ("stop acting chicken"), or its wings became a global phenomenon, the chicken wasn't considered for its meat but rather for its muscle. Dating back nearly 8,000 years, to Asia, chickens were used to fight one another as entertainment.

So when did the chicken go from pugilist to a staple of our plates?

According to archaeologists at the University of Haifa in Israel, the answer is during the Hellenistic period, between 400 and 200 B.C.E., in an ancient town in modern-day Israel called Maresha.

The archaeologists recently unearthed a collection of chicken bones there. This in itself wasn't all that surprising; what was surprising was the quantity – more than 1,000 – and their condition. "They were very, very well-preserved," Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student at the University of Haifa, told NPR. The findings, discovered by Perry-Gal and her team, have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chicken bones found by archeologists from Haifa University, Israel, in the ancient town of Manesha. Chicken bones found by archaeologists from the University of Haifa, Israel, in the ancient town of Maresha. (Photo: Haifa University)

Further support for the archaeologists' hypothesis was evidenced in the fact that knife marks from butchering were visible on the bones, and there were twice as many from females as males.

Why the turnabout? The answer is left to conjecture. Perry-Gal posited that perhaps the climate of the region was friendlier to the breeding of the bird or that it had evolved into a more attractive food option. But she thinks that part of it must have been a shift in thinking. "This is a matter of culture," she said. "You have to decide that you are eating chicken from now on."

The researchers credit the new attitude in Maresha, which was situated along a popular trade route in the region, with popularizing the idea of fowl as food in the civilized world. "From this point on, we see chicken everywhere in Europe," Perry-Gal said. "We see a bigger and bigger percent of chicken. It's like a new cellphone. We see it everywhere."

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