Who Were the First People to Eat Chickens?

A find in Israel shows evidence of chicken consumption from as early as 400 B.C.E.

Joe Schneid, Louisville, KY via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Given the ubiquity of poultry on plates today, it may come as a surprised to learn that the first domesticated chicken was not for eating but for fighting. Humans raised fowl for cockfights starting in Southeast Asia and China as early as 10,000 years ago, but their meat wasn’t enjoyed until later. Now researchers investigating an ancient city in Israel have found what they think is the earliest evidence that chickens were kept for food.

For NPR, Dan Charles reports on the find from Maresha, a city that enjoyed its peak during 400 to 200 BC. There, archeologists including Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student in archeology at the University of Haifa, found more than a thousand chicken bones bearing the marks of the knives used to butcher them. Critically, they found twice as many female remains as male ones. The ladies don't fight, so all the signs point to chickens headed for dinner plates. Charles writes that something happened in Maresha to make the people think of chickens as food: 

Maybe, in the dry Mediterranean climate, people learned better how to raise large numbers of chickens in captivity. Maybe the chickens evolved, physically, and became more attractive as food.

But Perry-Gal thinks that part of it must have been a shift in the way people thought about food. "This is a matter of culture," she says. "You have to decide that you are eating chicken from now on."

The researchers published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They write that the earliest evidence of large-scale chicken eating in Europe only pops up during the first century B.C.E., at least 100 years later than the finds in Israel. 

From the streets and houses of Maresha, the chicken’s popularity started to boom. In recent years, the popularity of chicken on U.S. plates has finally surpassed that of beef. Now, Americans eat more than 80 pounds of chicken per person every year.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.