While chicken is the leading meat of choice among most Americans, and second only to pork globally, consuming them is actually a fairly recent practice in human history. Hence why the discovery of chicken bones that appeared to have been prepared for food was somewhat groundbreaking.
As NPR reports, the emergence of chickens as a food source seems to be marked by an over 2,000-year-old site in present-day Israel. Called Meresha, the former trade city presents a turning point in our relationship with the now universally-domesticated poultry.
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.
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.”
Within a century of deciding to eat chicken, the residents of Maresha saw their new culinary disposition spread across the expansive and influential Roman Empire, which no doubt helped to propagate chicken flesh as a staple meat to the rest of Europe and beyond.
It is amazing to think how cuisines can emerge or decline on a whim. All it takes is for one or a few people to give it a try and have it catch on at the right time and place. Had Maresha not been linked to the large and sophisticated Roman Empire, who knows how long or where else chicken would have become food.