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Question Your World: What Came First the Chicken or the Egg?

It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in the continental United States and not have access to chicken as a meal option. Chicken meat and eggs have been a standard here for what seems like forever, but it had to start somewhere. So, who brought chickens to the Americas? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

What came first the chicken or the egg? That’s a big question that gets asked a lot in the science field as it pertains to evolution and genetics. In the field of archeology, there’s a different big question that gets asked a lot. Who came to South America first, the Polynesians or Columbus? And now that question also has to deal with chickens!

Well, the study of human distribution can sometimes be studied not just by the bones of migrating people, but also by what else they took with them. The study of domesticated animals can sometimes answer questions about humans better than studying bones of past civilizations. Chickens are of course amazing animals, but bless their hearts, they just can’t get from the Philippines to the Americas on their own. They can’t fly long distances and have yet to master the art of building sea faring vessels or planes. So, the only way these clucky animals could get around is if we took them with us for food.

There’s been a long contested argument over the origins of the chicken genetic stock in the Americas. Some link it to the Polynesians while others say Columbus and crew brought them over. In the past a genetic study of chicken bones was concluded and gave the Polynesians the award for first chicken deliverers to the Americas. However, new evidence suggests that the DNA they were testing in the past was…you ready?…foul. The earlier studies on American-poultry-domestication had tainted DNA. So, a newer research took place recently and has turned the tables on the earliest people to bring chickens to the Americas.

In some old bones found in the Philippines scientists were able to study and cross-examine early chicken genes with those found early on in South America and with those from Europe. The newly studied lineage shows that the South American chicken genome is heavily influenced from the European chickens and not those of the Philippines. This research turns out to have two big outcomes. First, Columbus (and ultimately Europe) gets to be the origin of the genetic lineage of chickens in the Americas. Secondly, and this is a big one, the chicken stock in the Philippines turns out to be closer to the original chicken stock before we started to domesticate and subtly change the genome of the healthy original chickens to the factory grown mass produced chickens we have available today. These earlier chickens hold a healthier gene stock which is less prone to diseases synonymous with incest and over-breeding from a small gene pool.

This study looks at both archaeological origins of chickens in the Americas and the current state of the chicken genome as it pertains to the health of the animals we are consuming. Once all this is properly studied and understood scientists can move on to the next task of figuring out why, like everything tastes kinda like chicken...

Article by: Prabir Mehta Science Museum of Virginia

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