New Study Suggests Geese Were the First Domesticated Birds

Researchers found bones in China that indicate geese were domesticated about 2,000 years before chickens

flock of white and brown geese on grassy field
Geese could have been bred to compensate for a reduction in birds from spring to autumn, according to researchers. Pixabay

A new study has found geese in China might have been the first birds domesticated by humans, reports New Scientist’s Michael Marshall.

Researchers affiliated with institutions in Japan and China studied 232 goose bones found at the Tianluoshan dig site in east China, an area that had been a settlement of Stone Age hunter-gatherers and rice farmers between 7,000 and 5,500 years ago. After radiocarbon dating the bones to 5000 B.C.E., the team determined the bones came from domesticated fowl.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), four of the bones came from goslings ranging from eight to 16 weeks old—too young to fly any distance. Since no wild geese breed in the area today, and it was unlikely they would have 7,000 years ago, researchers concluded this meant the goslings were hatched at Tianluoshan. The adult geese bones also indicate local breeding, as the chemical make-up of their bones reflect the same water source, and the birds were all roughly the same size.

“It is possible that geese were bred to compensate for the reduced number of available birds from spring to autumn,” the research team writes in the study. “Butchering and manufacturing marks were found on the goose bones, suggesting that both locally bred and wild geese provided meat and raw materials for bone tools, such as awls, needle holders, and other instruments.”

These findings suggest geese may have been the first birds domesticated in the world, even before chickens. Though research from 2014 on chicken bone DNA suggests chickens were domesticated in China as early as 10,000 years ago, the results of that study are under contention. The earliest conclusive evidence of chicken domestication dates to 5,000 years ago, per New Scientist.

“It’s a major study in our understanding of poultry domestication,” zooarchaeologist Ophélie Lebrasseur at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse in France, who was not involved in the study, tells New Scientist. “They’ve been very thorough.”

The TimesDidi Tang reports goose meat has long been consumed in China, and accounts for nearly 76 percent of its consumption. Though it’s not one of the major foods of the Chinese diet, the country is also the largest producer of goose meat, as farming in the region contributes to about 90 percent of the world's goose population.

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