The Globe-Trotting Chicken’s Ancestor

  June 23, 2020

Long before the birth of Christ, a bird, never seen before in the valley of the Blue Nile, reached the court of the pharaohs. Neither the architectural grandeur of the court nor the 'gold-draped' Pharaohs could silhouette its beauty. A bright red comb rested regally on its head and shiny green and red feathers clothed its body finally ending in an eclipse plume. The Egyptians had never seen a bird which laid so many eggs. When it crowed, they listened with rapt attention. When it walked around the court, everyone made way. It became a showpiece in the Pharaoh’s court. Fascinated, they adopted the bird. Everybody used to be shown the chicken and training camps were set up on how to get this wild red jungle fowl (RJF) to lay eggs.

But much before the bird reached Egypt, the RJF (Gallus gallus) was probably first domesticated in the twin cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the Indus valley around 2500- 2100 BC. Seals were found at Mohenjodaro depicting fighting cocks. Various clay figurines of the fowl were also found, including one of a hen with a feed dish.

While most wild animals were domesticated for meat, in the case of RJF, which belongs to the family of pheasants, it was for its fighting abilities. In Bhavprakash Nighantu, a book on Ayurveda by Acharya Bhavprakash, he states that the Vedas, too, praise the fowl for its ‘courage’.

Indians were also the first to realize its medicinal and nutritional worth. Special attention has been paid to the bird in the Ayurvedic system of medicine also. 'The fowl is a medicine in itself,' agrees Vaidya Balendu Prakash of the Vaidya Chandra Prakash Cancer Research Foundation, Dehradun. Rich in minerals such as copper and iron, in course of time, the fowl also became a welcome bribe.

As it reached Persia (modern-day Iran), Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), Egypt, China, Russia, Europe and eventually the US, the fowl was christened according to the local dialect. For instance, pullet (young hen) in Latin comes from the word pil in Sanskrit. Similarly, chicken and cock comes from Sanskrit kukuth or kukutha. Nomenclature aside, everywhere it went, it was regarded as a special bird.

Backyard poultry became common. Soon people started developing newer breeds with selective cross breeding with other fowls. After a long period of trial and error the Asiatic, US and English breeds of the 'chicken' that we have today were finally born. Today, they feed a large percentage of the world’s population.

*This extract is from the book Environmental History Reader published by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2015

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