The Chicken, from Jungle to Barnyard

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Eggs, then, are nearly a billion years older than the oldest birds. The genus Gallus, to which the chicken belongs, is a mere 8 million years old, and Gallus gallus, the chicken species, has been around only for the last 3 to 4 million years.

For a barnyard commoner, the chicken has a surprisingly exotic background. Its immediate ancestors were jungle fowl native to tropical and subtropical Southeast Asia and India. The chicken more or less as we know it was probably domesticated in Southeast Asia before 7500 BCE, which is when larger-than-wild bones date from in Chinese finds far north of the jungle fowl’s current range. By 1500 BCE chickens had found their way to Sumer and Egypt, and they arrived around 800 BCE in Greece, where they became known as “Persian birds,” and where quail were the primary source of eggs.