Chickens Traveled Across the World to Get to America

The Red Junglefowl is the ancestor of domestic chickens. Francesco Veronesi on Flickr

How did the chicken cross the ocean? They're not native to the Americas, and we know that they didn't walk, fly, or swim from their native habitat in Southeast Asia. So how did they become the protein staple of the American diet today?

If we consider DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating, we can get a better picture of what happened. Apparently, they crossed different oceans at different times to get to the Americas.

Domestic chickens are a subspecies of red junglefowl, which occur naturally in India, Burma, Java, and other Southeast Asian countries. According to Forbes, wild chickens have been found in Northern China dating back 12,000 years, and archaeological evidence suggests they were first domesticated 5,400 years ago.

Chicken remains, with their brittle bird bones, are somewhat difficult to find, identify, and study. However, in 2012, researchers examined the mitochondrial DNA of chickens to try to map their travels. The research was published in the journal PLoS One.

Previously, there were various clues as to how chickens got around the world, who kept them, and why. Scientists could look at written evidence, where their bones were found, and changes in their morphology. But the 2012 study used both DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating to paint a clearer picture.

By studying ancient chicken DNA, scientists found that there likely was an Asian center where many of the birds began the domestication process, but they don't yet know where. After domestication, the animals began leaving Asia about 3,000 years ago. They went to Europe, and then Dutch and Portuguese slave traders brought them from there to the Americas. At around the same time, people brought chickens east from Asia to the Pacific Ocean, and then to the Americas as well. So chickens have traveled all around the globe to end up in the same area.

Chickens are part of the Phasianidae family, along with other brightly-colored, heavy, ground-dwelling birds like peacocks and turkeys. This family is a popular food source because the birds don't fly very often (or for very long distances,) and they are larger game than other birds. Today there are hundreds of breeds of chicken, from the shoe-sized Bantham to the all-black Ayam Cemani. Chickens and their eggs are an incredibly popular source of protein, as Americans consume 8 billion of the animals per year.

And if they had never come to the Americas, we may have chicken-free diets today.