Poultry's Global Appeal, The History Of Chicken Farming
If we were to decide what precise genetic qualities make up a modern chicken, we could in principle identify the first such bird that possessed those qualities. One of those qualities, undoubtedly, would be that it hatched from an egg. We can therefore say definitively that the egg must have come first. The rest, as they say, is history. What a history though! Chickens have been present from the very dawn of human civilization and when we rear and breed them, we are participating in a tradition that stretches back thousands and thousands of years
Why do we breed chickens more than any other bird? Part of the answer probably lies in the habits and characteristics of its ancestor, the red junglefowl of Southeast Asia. This bird was well suited to domestication. It scratched its living from the jungle floor, eating what small insects and plant-life it found there. As a consequence it had little need to fly further than its roosts in the trees, making it relatively easy for people to catch and keep. More than that, breeding chickens did not require the expanses of pasture needed for other animals and even merchants dwelling in villages and towns could easily keep a brood of hens in their yards. It is likely that for millennia, a large proportion of mankind kept chickens.
It was over this time that selective breeding, both deliberate and accidental imbued the chicken with the desirable qualities it possesses today, especially its prodigious egg-laying ability. This seems to have come about due to the deactivation of a gene that would otherwise limit egg-laying to only certain times of the year. It is easy to imagine ancient chicken farmers placing great value on birds that would produce eggs all year round! As time went on, more specialization was possible, with some breeds prized for their egg-laying, others for their plump flesh. There was also of course the violent sport of cock-fighting, although thankfully that has become much less popular today.
The Wonder Food That Crossed Continents
From ancient Vietnam, the chicken spread across the world, travelling along the great slow trade routes. China came first, more than 8,000 years ago, followed by Pakistan, the Middle East and Egypt over the following millennia, eventually reaching Eastern Europe in around 3000 BC. Although the chicken’s popularity changed with time, booming under the Roman Empire and declining in the middle-ages, they have undoubtedly been an integral part of life since throughout the history of Eurasian civilization. There is even some disputed evidence to suggest that Chickens reached the Americas, brought to the west coast of Chile by Polynesian traders more than a century before the arrival of Columbus.
Chicken and eggs are now found in gastronomic traditions across the world and are one of the most consistent ingredients in our ever-more-varied culinary habits. In fact, outside of vegetarian and vegan diets, it is hard often to find a single meal that does not include them. Chicken meat is fast becoming the most popular in the world, currently poised to surpass pork, but it is perhaps the versatility of the eggs that has led to poultry’s preeminent position. Eggs are a true wonder-food, containing in them not just most of the nutrients the body needs, but in a form that is particularly easy for humans to digest. They even include the essential but often overlooked nutrient Choline, in which 90% of Americans are deficient. Furthermore, modern research shows that regularly consuming eggs, as part of a varied diet, can even contribute to weight-loss, and contrary to older ideas, is linked to a reduction in cholesterol levels.
Into The Future
Given their importance and popularity, it is hardly surprising that for much of history, humans have tried to maximize both chicken and egg production. We have tried to rear chickens to an edible quality as fast as possible, and to force them to lay eggs faster and faster, in smaller and smaller spaces. Even as far back as the ancient Romans, chicken farmers were advised how to maximize the yield of their brood. Regrettably in the last hundred years this has meant a rapid increase in battery farming and chemically enhanced quick-rearing techniques that ass produce eggs and meat at the expense of the chickens’ welfare. Had this gone un-checked, the domestic chicken that had pecked its way around farmyards for centuries could have become a thing of the past!
Today however, thanks to the backlash against global consumerism and increasing awareness of the importance of animal rights, there are signs that chicken farming is returning to its ancient roots. Most people who can afford to do so buy free range produce and of course the urban poultry movement becomes more popular every year. These brilliant birds have been with us for millennia, and in all likelihood will continue to be of global importance, far into the future.