Earliest economic exploitation of chicken outside East Asia: Evidence from the Hellenistic Southern Levant
Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is today one of the most widespread domesticated species and is a main source of protein in the human diet. However, for thousands of years exploitation of chickens was confined to symbolic and social domains such as cockfighting. The question of when and where chickens were first used for economic purposes remains unresolved. The results of our faunal analysis demonstrate that the Hellenistic (fourth-second centuries B.C.E.) site of Maresha, Israel, is the earliest site known today where economic exploitation of chickens was widely practiced. We base our claim on the exceptionally high frequency of chicken bones at that site, the majority of which belong to adult individuals, and on the observed 2:1 ratio of female to male bones. These results are supported further by an extensive survey of faunal remains from 234 sites in the Southern Levant, spanning more than three millennia, which shows a sharp increase in the frequency of chicken during the Hellenistic period. We further argue that the earliest secure evidence for economic exploitation of chickens in Europe dates to the first century B.C.E. and therefore is predated by the finds in the Southern Levant by at least a century. We suggest that the gradual acclimatization of chickens in the Southern Levant and its gradual integration into the local economy, the latter fully accomplished in the Hellenistic period, was a crucial step in the adoption of this species in European husbandry some 100 y later.