At Home in Nature

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Archeology of the chicken

Archeology is lending its support to understanding the domestication of the chicken, science which may improve the continued development of the important species in the future by farmers worldwide.  In their new study, La domestication du poulet : de l’archéologie à la génomique (Comptes Rendus Biologies, Volume 334, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 197-204) Drs. Michèle Tixier-Boicharda, Bertrand Bed’homa and Xavier Rognona of France have found a history of the domestication of the chicken written in its genome. 


La connaissance de la domestication du poulet s’appuie sur des données archéologiques, historiques et moléculaires. L’existence de plusieurs foyers de domestication en Asie du Sud et du Sud-Est, et la contribution de Gallus sonneratii à la domestication du poulet en complément de l’espèce ancêtre majeur Gallu gallus sont maintenant bien démontrées. La diversité génétique du poulet domestique est actuellement distribuée entre populations traditionnelles, races standardisées et lignées sélectionnées. L’accès à la séquence du génome a accéléré l’identification des mutations causales de différences morphologiques majeures entre poulets domestiques et Gallus sauvages. Un reséquençage du génome comparant poulets domestiques et Gallus sauvages a permis d’identifier 21 signatures de domestication. L’une présente une mutation non-synonyme du gène TSHR dont les conséquences fonctionnelles restent à explorer. Cette approche peut aussi identifier des gènes candidats correspondant à des locus à effets quantitatifs (quantitative traits loci [QTL]) déjà détectés. La génomique ouvre de nouvelles voies pour comprendre les changements majeurs induits par la domestication et la sélection.


Which translates to


Current knowledge on chicken domestication is reviewed on the basis of archaeological, historical and molecular data. Several domestication centres have been identified in South and South-East Asia. Gallus gallus is the major ancestor species, but Gallus sonneratii has also contributed to the genetic make-up of the domestic chicken. Genetic diversity is now distributed among traditional populations, standardized breeds and highly selected lines. Knowing the genome sequence has accelerated the identification of causal mutations determining major morphological differences between wild Gallus and domestic breeds. Comparative genome resequencing between Gallus and domestic chickens has identified 21 selective sweeps, one involving a non-synonymous mutation in the TSHR gene, which functional consequences remain to be explored. The resequencing approach could also identify candidate genes responsible of quantitative traits loci (QTL) effects in selected lines. Genomics is opening new ways to understand major switches that took place during domestication and subsequent selection.


Though far from complete, their line of inquiry will shed light on the characteristics that the first chicken farmers sought to improve in the chicken, and lend insight on how they limited chicken development today.  With advances in breeding, not to mention genetic engineering, we may be able to reclaim a now extinct ancestor of the chicken and begin domestication anew with the skills and understanding unavailable to our worthy ancestors so many thousands of years ago.

It is regrettable that no written records could have been kept by our ancestors, but it is fortunate that modern archeology can still tell their story because their choices, made so many thousands of years ago, still impact us today.  We may look forward to understanding better not only about the chicken, but about our own ancestors, as we examine the relationship between them.
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