Saturday, June 09, 2007

Chickens in Prehistory

From today's NY Times:

June 9, 2007
Trans-Pacific Chicken
In the litter of our meals lie the bones of a forgotten history. In this case, chicken bones found at a Chilean archaeological site called. Their DNA closely resemble prehistoricchicken bones found in Polynesia and radiocarbon dating suggests that thechickens these bones belonged to made it to the New World about a century beforeany European explorer. The research team that made the discovery calls this “the first unequivocal evidence for a pre-European introduction of chickens to SouthAmerica.”

The modesty of this statement is impeccable. But its implication is not so modest. It has long been believed that the easternmost reach of Polynesian voyaging was Easter Island, some 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile. But these bones place the voyagers — whoever they were and whatever their intent — in the Americas themselves, and well before the Europeans who were long supposed to have introduced chickens to the southern continent. Like Captain Cook, we get to marvel yet again at the thought of how far the Polynesians traveled and how well they knew their world. As Cook put it, “It is extraordinary that the same nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this vast ocean.”

And what better traveling companion for a long voyage in an ocean-going outrigger canoe than a few chickens? They would have been perhaps the nucleus of a new settlement and, at the very least, an assurance of supper. They would, of course, have looked very little like the chickens we know — more like the native jungle fowl of Southeast Asia from which they were descended. And we know nothing about how they were prepared. But in the remains of that meal there is a world of conjecture.

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