Had the Bible been seeking a stronger selling point, God might have promised the Hebrews a land flowing with milk and delicious chicken dinners, at least according to new research published Tuesday.
A team of researchers excavating the site of Maresha in the southern Judean plain say they found evidence that chicken and eggs, were consumed in the region well before other antiquity sites.
“It’s accurate to say that Israel is where the chicken business was invented,” doctoral student Lee Perry-Gal told The Times of Israel. “Jewish chicken soup, Kentucky Fried Chicken – it all has its roots in the Hellenistic city of Maresha in central Israel.”
“At some point in between 200 and 400 BCE, the residents of Maresha began raising and eating chicken, as well as eggs, which we also have no evidence was eaten before this period,” said Perry-Gal, referring to an archaeological site near the Beit Guvrin caves in central Israel. “That changed, and chicken became a part of the culinary culture of Israel – and eventually the rest of the Western world.”
Senior staff at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University — Professor Guy Bar-Oz, Dr. Adi Erlich, and Ayelet Gilboa — along with Perry-Gal, this week published research on how chicken came to be a major food source in the West. The research was published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Today, chicken is one of the world’s biggest sources of animal protein and is eaten almost everywhere – but the world didn’t pick up the chicken-eating habit, according to evidence discovered by Perry-Gal and her fellow researchers, until the Romans got their first taste of the bird at Maresha.
“Before that we do not see anyone in Rome, or in the rest of Europe, eating chicken,” said Perry-Gal. “After the Romans exported what they saw at Maresha, chickens became a culinary craze throughout the Empire. It was like a new cellphone – everyone who was anyone began raising and eating chicken.”
In their study of Maresha, the researchers discovered thousands of well-preserved bones of chickens, with knife marks on the bones indicating that they were prepared for consumption – not used for cockfighting, which was a common sport in the ancient world.
“In addition, there were twice as many bones from male chickens as from females, indicating that the Maresha chicken farmers were keeping the females to raise eggs, both for consumption and to hatch new chickens,” said Perry-Gal.
By the first century, chicken production was one of the biggest businesses in Maresha – at which point the Romans, newly arrived in Israel, exported it back to Europe.
“Rome, which was a world power, also became a culinary center, and Roman cooks prepared dishes using ingredients from around the Empire. Once chicken arrived, it became extremely popular – and from zero chicken production prior to the Roman arrival in Israel, we see that in the following hundred years chicken production became a major industry throughout Europe,” said Perry-Gal.
Chickens originated in southeast Asia, and had actually been known in the West for many centuries (it’s not clear how they got to the Middle East or Europe). So why didn’t anyone come up with the idea for fried chicken before?
“Apparently, the chickens that most Westerners knew were not the docile farm animals we are familiar with, but were more wild, and perhaps difficult to raise,” said Perry-Gal. Whether due to specific breeding techniques or other factors, like acclimation to the dry Mediterranean environment, the Maresha chickens were apparently better suited to commercial production.
Indeed, chickens and roosters were seen as virile, strong animals in the ancient world; they were used as good luck charms, and were often brought into battle for their fortune-telling capacity (Greek and Roman general gauged their chances of success by whether or not chickens would eat). “The Romans discovered that the Maresha chickens were different than the chickens they were familiar with, and realized they could be a food source,” said Perry-Gal.
In yet another twist, said Perry-Gal, it appeared that the Maresha chickens were not barbecued, as most meat in the ancient world was, but cooked. “The evidence we see from the bones is that they are not scarred as they would be from fire, but uniformly cooked, as if they were boiled” – or baked or even fried, as they are today, she said.
As a Hellenistic-era crossroads city, Maresha was a center of Middle Eastern culture, where people weren’t afraid of, and likely embraced, new ideas. This may have made it easier for residents to swallow the idea of eating chicken.
Consuming fowl, of course, was not foreign to Jews; the Torah designates doves and pigeons as fit for sacrifices and consumption.
“But interestingly, we did not find even one dove bone at Maresha,” said Perry-Gal. And in fact, there were none in the thousands of columbaria (dovecotes) at the site; in other cities, such columbaria were used to raise and store doves that were used in Temple ritual.
“The Maresha columbaria were full of chicken bones,” she added, indicating, perhaps, that the Hellenistic residents of the city were having their own little joke – raising chickens that were useless for religious rites in the same way observant Jews were raising doves for Temple sacrifice.
Whatever the motivation, it’s clear to the researchers that the idea of chicken as food has its roots in Maresha. “This was a city that was a cultural crossroad, like the New York of its day, but of course on a smaller scale,” said Perry-Gal. “When the Romans picked up on their custom of eating chicken, the world was changed profoundly.”