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How Chickens Shifted From Sacred To Diet Staple


This month at Oxford, archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians and other researchers will get together to talk about chickens. To explain why, we talked to Naomi Sykes. She's a senior lecturer at the University of Nottingham and an expert in zooarchaeology. That means she studies how people and animals have interacted throughout human history. And for the last three years, her attention has been squarely focused on one animal in particular: the chicken.

Together with a team of roughly 25 researchers in the U.K., she's working to answer questions about where chickens came from and how they evolved with people. The project has a very serious title.

NAOMI SYKES: Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions. But we just call it The Chicken Project (laughter).

MCEVERS: Here are a couple of things that surprised us in their research. First, Sykes says chickens are actually only native to Southeast Asia. They started moving around the rest of the world about 5,000 years ago. And then there's this.

SYKES: When we think about chickens today, we just think about them as food, right? They're the biggest source of protein on the planet, whether that's their meat or whether that's their eggs. But I think the real shocker for us has been there's very little evidence to suggest that people initially started hanging out with chickens for those reasons. It looks as though chickens were never considered to be food at all when they started on this process of hanging out with people.

MCEVERS: When she says hanging out, she means hanging out. When chickens were introduced to new places, Sykes says people considered these strange new animals sacred. In some cases, people were even buried with their chickens. So how did they go from beloved companions to lunch? Sykes says it's because there eventually were just so many of them.

SYKES: As familiarity breeds contempt almost, as the numbers increased, people started thinking, oh, these chickens - they're not so special after all. Let's, like, knock a few on the head and eat them. Oh, they're quite tasty.

MCEVERS: Tasty and now kind of funny. Three years into the project, Sykes says she's heard all the jokes.

SYKES: In fact when we first got the funding for this project, we made international news with people just saying, what a ridiculous project; what a bird-brained idea. We're causing a flap with taxpayers' money.

MCEVERS: Sykes says, you know what? Chickens are funny, so you might as well embrace it.


Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.