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The Ancient City Where People Decided To Eat Chickens

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Lee Perry-Gal measures chicken long bones at the zooarchaeology lab, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa.

An ancient, abandoned city in Israel has revealed part of the story of how the chicken turned into one of the pillars of the modern Western diet.

The city, now an archaeological site, is called Maresha. It flourished in the Hellenistic period from 400 to 200 BCE.

"The site is located on a trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt," says Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student in the department of archaeology at the University of Haifa. As a result, it was a meeting place of cultures, "like New York City," she says.

Not too long ago, the archaeologists unearthed something unusual: a collection of chicken bones.

"This was very, very surprising," says Perry-Gal.

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.

The site contained more than a thousand chicken bones. "They were very, very well-preserved," says Perry-Gal, whose findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Perry-Gal could see knife marks on them from butchering. There were twice as many bones from female birds as male. These chickens apparently were being raised for their meat, not for cockfighting.

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."

In the history of human cuisine, Maresha may mark a turning point.

Barely a century later, the Romans starting spreading the chicken-eating habit across their empire. "From this point on, we see chicken everywhere in Europe," Perry-Gal says. "We see a bigger and bigger percent of chicken. It's like a new cellphone. We see it everywhere."

Chicken-eating really is everywhere today. It's the most commonly eaten meat in America. Globally, it's second behind pork, but it's catching up fast. Within five years, humans will probably eat more chicken than any other meat.

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