The Ancient City Where People Decided To Eat Chickens

The Ancient City Where People Decided To Eat Chickens

1:51pm Jul 23, 2015
Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken long bones at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.
Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken long bones at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.
Courtesy of Guy Bar-Oz
  • Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken long bones at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

    Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken long bones at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

    Courtesy of Guy Bar-Oz

  • Tarsometatarsus chicken bones are ready to be analyzed at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

    Tarsometatarsus chicken bones are ready to be analyzed at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

    Courtesy of Lee Perry Gal

An ancient, abandoned city in Israel has revealed part of the story of how the chicken turned into one of the pillars of the modern Western diet.

The city, now an archaeological site, is called Maresha. It flourished in the Hellenistic period from 400 to 200 BCE.

"The site is located on a trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt," says Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student in the department of archaeology at the University of Haifa. As a result, it was a meeting place of cultures, "like New York City," she says.

Not too long ago, the archaeologists unearthed something unusual: a collection of chicken bones.

"This was very, very surprising," says Perry-Gal.

The surprising thing was not that chickens lived here. There's evidence that humans have kept chickens around for thousands of years, starting in Southeast Asia and China.

But those older sites contained just a few scattered chicken bones. People were raising those chickens for cockfighting, or for special ceremonies. The birds apparently weren't considered much of a food.

In Maresha, though, something changed.

The site contained more than a thousand chicken bones. "They were very, very well-preserved," says Perry-Gal, whose findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Perry-Gal could see knife marks on them from butchering. There were twice as many bones from female birds as male. These chickens apparently were being raised for their meat, not for cockfighting.

Tarsometatarsus chicken bones are ready to be analyzed at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

Tarsometatarsus chicken bones are ready to be analyzed at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

Courtesy of Lee Perry Gal

Perry-Gal says there could be a couple of reasons why the people of Maresha decided to eat chickens.

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."

In the history of human cuisine, Maresha may mark a turning point.

Barely a century later, the Romans starting spreading the chicken-eating habit across their empire. "From this point on, we see chicken everywhere in Europe," Perry-Gal says. "We see a bigger and bigger percent of chicken. It's like a new cellphone. We see it everywhere."

Chicken-eating really is everywhere today. It's the most commonly eaten meat in America. Globally, it's second behind pork, but it's catching up fast. Within five years, humans will probably eat more chicken than any other meat.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An ancient abandoned city in Israel has revealed a clue as to how chicken became one of the pillars of the human diet. The clue is a collection of bones. Apparently, they are leftovers from a 2000-year-old version of KFC. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In southern Israel, archaeologists have been excavating a city called Maresha, unearthing pieces of Greek civilization from 2,400 years ago. Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student of archeology at the University of Haifa, says Maresha was a meeting place of cultures.

LEE PERRY-GAL: The site itself is located on a trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt.

CHARLES: And recently, according to a report just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologists found something unusual here - chicken bones.

PERRY-GAL: This was very, very surprising.

CHARLES: The surprising thing was not that chickens lived there. Humans have kept chickens around for thousands of years, starting in Southeast Asia and China, but not, curiously, for their meat or their eggs. People were raising those birds for cockfighting or for special ceremonies, and they left behind just a few bones for the archaeologists. Here in Maresha, on the Mediterranean trade route, something changed. This site contained more than a thousand bones.

PERRY-GAL: They were very well preserved. They were extremely preserved.

CHARLES: Perry-Gal could see butchering marks on them. These chickens apparently were being raised for their meat. People were eating their eggs too. She says there could be a couple of reasons why. 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 part of it must've been a shift in people's ideas and customs.

PERRY-GAL: It's a matter of culture. You have to decide that you're eating chicken from now on.

CHARLES: In the history of Western cuisine, Maresha appears to mark a turning point. A century later, the chicken-eating habit began spreading across the Roman Empire.

PERRY-GAL: From this point on, we see chicken everywhere in Europe. We see a bigger and bigger percent of chicken. It's like a new cell phone, you know? You see it everywhere.

CHARLES: Today, of course, chicken-eating really is everywhere. It's the most commonly eaten meat in America. Globally, it's second, behind pork, but it's rapidly catching up. Within five years, humans will probably eat more chicken than any other meat. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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