Was China home to the world’s first chickens?

A new study of 10,000-year-old fossils suggests chickens were domesticated in northern China about the same time as cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep. (Credit: Katie Brady/Flickr)

Biologists have found the earliest evidence of domestic chickens in 10,000-year-old fossils from northern China.

At this age, the mitochondrial DNA sequences are several thousands of years older than any other ancient chicken DNA ever reported, researchers say.

Despite their age, the northern Chinese chicken sequences represent the three major groups of mitochondrial DNA sequences present in the modern chicken gene pool, suggesting genetic continuity between these oldest chicken bones and modern chicken populations.

Based on modern DNA sequences scientists had already proposed that chickens had been domesticated in different places in south and southeast Asia, but northern China had never previously been included as the place chickens were first domesticated.

Domesticated animals

“People argued that northern China did not provide suitable habitat for red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of domestic chickens, but they do not take into account that climate and vegetation were very different 10,000 years ago,” says Xingbo Zhao from China Agricultural University in Beijing.


Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the results not only suggest northern China as one of the earliest places for chicken domestication but also that the domestication of chickens, today the most important poultry species in the world, started as early as those of the other four agriculturally important animal species, cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep.

Moreover, the results provide further evidence for an early agricultural complex in northern China.

“These are really exciting results as they suggest that societies with mixed agriculture developed in northern China around the same time they did so in the Near East,” says Michi Hofreiter, an honorary professor in the biology department at University of York.

Source: University of York