December 22, 2014

Don’t disrespect the mighty chicken, builder of civilization

John Hopton for - Your Universe Online

It is a question of vital importance which we are not asking ourselves: are we giving chickens enough respect? Okay, maybe not vital importance, but a new book aims to convince us of the momentous role that the chicken has played in human history. In fact, says the author, chickens have “powered civilization.”

Nowadays when we use the word “chicken” in a context other than food it is usually derogatory, referring to someone who is cowardly or as disorganized as a headless hen. But in Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, journalist and author Andrew Lawler tells us how the shy bird that once hid in the jungles of south Asia came to be worshipped by ancient cultures, was venerated as a sex symbol (much to the anger of the Puritans) and won over the new world. Lawler also tells us how chickens can save us from many ailments, even if we do have to simultaneously worry that they could kill us.

From its origins as an elusive jungle bird in south Asian countries like Indonesia and Pakistan, the chicken went on to be revered by some of the most important civilizations in the ancient world. “If you go back to ancient Babylon, about 800 B.C., in what is now Iraq, you find seals used by people to identify themselves,” Lawler told National Geographic. “Some of these have images of chickens sitting on top of columns being worshipped by priests. That expanded with the Persian Empire. Zoroastrians considered the chicken sacred because it crowed before dawn, before the light appeared. And in Zoroastrian tradition, the coming of the light is a sign of good. So the chicken became associated with an awakening from physical, as well as spiritual, slumber.”

Almost 3,000 years later our grandmothers still tell us that chicken soup can help with our colds, and this, Lawler explains, is not a myth. In fact: “There have been several scientific studies in the past decade or so that show quite clearly that chicken soup contains something that helps us get over a cold. It won't cure your cold. But it will definitely help take care of some of those symptoms, like a runny nose or fever.”

He adds that: “In the ancient world, the chicken was considered a kind of two-legged pharmacy. If you had diarrhea, if you were depressed, if you had a child who was a bed wetter, you name it, there was some part of the chicken that could cure you.”

Louis Pasteur, one of history’s greatest contributors to human health, made scientific breakthroughs using chickens and his first important discovery in the study of vaccination came in 1879 while investigating chicken cholera. Chickens were also important to the work of Charles Darwin. Lawler admits that diseases transmitted by domesticated birds, such as bird flu, are a concern, but insists that for mankind it is a price worth paying for what he describes as the greatest inter-species relationship in history.

Let us examine the subject of chicken sex for a moment. Roosters are descried by Lawler as “randy creatures,” despite having no penis, unlike ducks and a lot of other birds. “They will mate continuously, and with different partners,” says the author. For this reason, they have been considered a symbol of fertility by many cultures, and the Puritans consequently tried to ban even the use of the word “cock.” Happily, they were unsuccessful.

Chicken is now by far the most popular meat in North America, along with many other parts of the world, but the native turkey was much more popular for a long time on the American continent. African slaves brought the chicken-as-food idea with them, with African-American cooks on plantations finally winning over the plantation owners with their cooking.

In the twenty first century, chickens are the focus of a movement to shift our food away from mass production and back to hands-on, locally produced food, with people keeping the birds in their back yards. Those getting involved in the local produce phenomenon even have their own term – "locavore."

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization also claims to tell us how chickens have been a gambling aid, an emblem of resurrection and an inspiration for bravery, all with the final aim of convincing us that the blessed chicken is, in fact, no joke.


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