This guest blog post by Dr Mark Maltby, Bournemouth University is part of the AHRC Science in Culture Theme’s contributions to Universities Week 2014. Between 9-15 June 2014, Universities across the UK are inviting everyone to be inspired, get involved and discover the work that they are doing to improve the way we live our lives.
Chickens: our most common domestic animal
The chicken, whose ancestors are native to Southeast Asia, has spread across the world to become our most common domestic animal. The chicken has social and cultural significance as a species providing meat, eggs, feathers and manure, but it has also been commonly bred and kept for pleasure (ranging from showing to pets) and has been used in rituals.
With around 1.5 trillion* eggs laid each year, the chicken’s integral role in our lives and our food industry is clearly visible. [* According to the International Egg Commission]
The AHRC funded ‘Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions’ project explores how the domestic chicken been used in the past and are used in the present in different regions.
Through our research (which combines zooarchaeology, anthropology, genetics, analysis of food residues in archaeological pottery, and the study of ancient diets using archaeological bone material) we are at the forefront of debates about food production and sustainability, human health and animal welfare though increased knowledge and understanding of the chicken as a whole.
Questions of food security and sustainability
Our researchers have discovered that today the chickens used in commercial contexts have very little genetic variation (despite the huge number of breeds available) compared to ancient chickens from our relatively recent archaeological past. This poses questions regarding food security and sustainability and the future viability of chickens as food animals. For example, by more fully understanding the chicken’s origins and subsequent development, food and breeding experts would be better equipped to handle and control the possibility of a contagious or transmitted disease outbreak. Such knowledge has the potential to help to inform breeding programmes and will raise awareness of bird health and productivity.
Surprisingly it is still not fully understood where and when the chicken became domesticated and started to enter the human world, since genetic investigation has recently demonstrated that the wild Red Jungle Fowl is not the chicken’s only ancestor, contrary to what had been previously thought. The oldest domestic chickens were believed to come from China and the Indus Valley (in Pakistan) but wide data collection and enhanced dating programmes are needed to confirm or refute this.
Why have chickens spread so successfully? We are also seeking a much better understanding of when and why chickens spread across Europe and into Britain. From this we can also deepen our knowledge of how these birds have since impacted on human lives, and see how changes in our exploitation of, and our attitudes towards, chickens have changed chickens themselves.
Without work such as ours we cannot look to the future of chickens as an important part of our diet, economy and society since we are ignorant of some of the most essential elements of their history, which ultimately dictate their current situation and their future.
You can also catch the AHRC Chicken project this week at Bournemouth Festival of Learning (9-15th June), as well as at the Green Fields at Glastonbury Festival (25- 29th June) and at Vindolanda for the Being Human festival on Sunday 16th November.