Origin of Chicken: Jungle Runs Afowl in the Western Hemisphere

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 6.28.59 PMBy Julie Etra

The history of the origin of domesticated chickens (Gallus domesticus) is long and interesting. They were first domesticated from a wild form called red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a bird that still exists at least in parts of southeast Asia where it originated, and likely hybridized with the gray junglefowl (G. sonneratii) about 8,000 years ago. Research indicates possible multiple origins from distinct areas of South and Southeast Asia, southern China, Thailand, Burma, and India. Firm evidence of domesticated chickens isn’t found in China until 3600 BCE. From Smithsonian Magazine: “It is all the more surprising in light of the belief by many archaeologists that chickens were first domesticated not for eating but for cockfighting. Until the advent of large-scale industrial production in the 20th century, the economic and nutritional contribution of chickens was modest.”

Chickens arrived in the Middle East starting with Iran in 3900 BCE, followed by Turkey and Syria (2400-2000 BCE) and Jordan by 1200 BCE. How did they get to the Western Hemisphere? By Polynesian canoes at least 100 years before the Europeans. According to an article in the New York Times in 2007, American archaeologist Alice Story and colleagues reported irrefutable evidence that the Polynesians landed in Chile with their chickens. Chicken bones excavated at El-Arenal on the Arauco Peninsula in south central Chile, and then analyzed, indicated the chickens lived between 1304 and 1424 CE. This was verified by dating nearby pottery shards. Additional evidence suggesting pre-Columbian contact between South Americans and Polynesians has been identified from ancient and modern DNA of human skeletons in both locations. The genetic evidence also jives with samples from Easter Island, also colonized by Polynesians.

After centuries of breeding, the domesticated chickens are of course fattier than their wild counterparts. They are also less active since food is readily available, have fewer social interactions with other chickens, and are less aggressive to potential predators. Domesticated chickens produce eggs at an earlier age, and the eggs are larger. In Mexico, domesticated chickens are distinctly more yellow (see The Eye archives, April 2012) than those in the United States.

Mexican wild chickens: Chachalacas

The chachalaca, of which there are at least five species in Mexico, may be considered a wild counterpart to the modern chicken, roughly equivalent in size to a pheasant, found in temperate climates.

If you live in Huatulco or environs, you have certainly seen and heard the West Mexican chachalaca (Ortalis poliocephala), known in the Zapotec language as beerexiga. Other common species include the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) and, in the Huasteca of Hidalgo, the ajochano de chachalaca. The large West Mexican chachalaca is found only in Mexico, more specifically in Pacific-slope thorn forest (and adjacent interior) from Jalisco to Oaxaca. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical dry forests and subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests. From the Nahuatl, “chachayaut” means to talk too much. The birds are noisy, and sound roughly like an old Model T Ford cranking up. They are usually seen in pairs or more, with their young. They have long tails, strong legs, and a beak similar to a chicken’s. Its meat is considered very tasty (no personal experience). In the state of Nayarit, the bird is cooked with lard and pellets of nixtamal (corn) dough. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Zapotec make a chachalaca, tomato and onion stew.

Mexican turkeys? That’s another story for another issue of The Eye. Although the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday is only a few centuries old, archaeological evidence suggests that in Mexico’s central valleys of Oaxaca, wild turkey had been “domesticated” at least 1,500 years ago. In fact, the amount of turkey remains found at a site inhabited by the Zapotec people suggests that turkey meals back then were “second only to dog” in popularity.