New research project to uncover the history of chickens

Posted by er134 at Sep 18, 2013 10:38 AM |
University of Leicester archaeologist involved in project

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 18 September 2013

A new research project looking at the history of chickens is hoping to shed light on how the relationship between people and chickens has developed over the last 8,000 years.

The project, involving the University of Leicester, will see researchers dive into archaeological records to investigate the history of the world’s most widely established livestock species, which is descended from the wild jungle fowl of SE Asia.

Researchers from Leicester will work with colleagues from Bournemouth University, as well as the Universities of Durham, Nottingham, Roehampton and York, to examine when and how rapidly domesticated chickens spread across Europe and the history of their exploitation for meat and eggs. The project will also investigate the ancient and modern cultural significance of the birds in, for example, religious rituals and cockfighting. Research will include metrical and DNA analysis of modern and ancient chicken bones to trace the development of different breeds.

Richard Thomas, from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: “Chickens are the most widespread domestic animal on the planet: today there are over 20 billion worldwide; yet, we still know very little about their social and cultural history.

“This interdisciplinary AHRC-funded project, brings together an illustrious team of anthropologists, archaeologists, and geneticists, to transform our understanding of this ubiquitous bird. We are immensely privileged to be involved in this project; the Leicester team will focus upon chicken breeding and chicken health.

“Modern chickens are the most highly bred livestock species and rare breeds are the focus of conservation programmes. However, the timing, mechanisms and motivations for the proliferation of chicken breeds are little understood. The link between livestock breeding and disease susceptibility is equally under-explored, yet it has significant implications concerning the future sustainability of poultry husbandry.

“The Leicester team will address these issues by researching past populations of chickens drawn from archaeological sites across Europe, consulting written records, and studying extant breeds of chickens.”

Principal Investigator for the project, Bournemouth University’s Dr Mark Maltby said, “This is a fantastic opportunity to work with a team of high international esteem drawn from a wide range of disciplines that includes genetics, cultural anthropology, history and archaeological science. We are united by our mutual research interests in how chickens and people have interacted in the past and the present.”

The results of the research will form the basis a series of exhibitions in museums and other venues throughout the UK making up ‘The Chicken Trail’ that will tell the story of the chicken’s domestication in Europe and there are also plans to display some of the research findings in butchers shops.

The project, entitled “Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions”, was made possible with the help of a £1.94 million grant from the AHRC under the Science In Culture Awards Large Grants call.  The project will also involve collaboration with academic colleagues across Europe and with poultry breeders and other interested members of the public.

Work is due to begin in January 2014 and the research will be completed in 2017 – coinciding with The Chinese Year of the Rooster.  The work is supported by an interactive research network “The Chicken Coop” and the latest information and breaking news about the research can be found at


Notes to editors:

For more information, please contact Dr Richard Thomas, University of Leicester, on

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