Scientists have found the earliest evidence for chicken domestication to date in northern China.
Researchers have already suggested that chickens had been domesticated in different places in south and south-east Asia, but previously northern China had never been suggested as a location for chicken domestication.
The researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA sequences from up to 10,000-year-old chicken fossils originating from northern China.
At this age, the sequences are several thousands of years older than any other chicken ancient DNA sequences reported previously, according to the study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Moreover, despite their age, the northern Chinese chicken sequences already represent the three major groups of mitochondrial DNA sequences present in the modern chicken gene pool, suggesting genetic continuity between these oldest chicken bones known worldwide and modern chicken populations.
“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,” said Professor Xingbo Zhao from China Agricultural University in Beijing.
The results suggest northern China as one of the earliest places for chicken domestication and also that the domestication of chicken, today the most important poultry species in the world, started as early as those of the other four agriculturally important animal species, cattle, pigs, goat and sheep.
“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,” said Professor Michi Hofreiter, of the University of Potsdam in Germany and an Honorary Professor in University of York’s Department of Biology.