Today, one could probably talk about a food trend: more than two thousand years ago, chicken meat from the territory of modern Israel came to Europe and revolutionized the local food culture. The creators of the culinary innovation were the inhabitants of the ancient city of Marissa: they were the first in the Western Hemisphere to cook poultry about 2,300 years ago, as Israeli researchers have now discovered.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Haifa discovered an unusually high concentration of chicken bones in the remains of Marissa, located in what is now Bet Guvrin Marissa National Park, near the border with the West Bank. The researchers found knife marks on the bones, indicating that the chickens were slaughtered rather than kept for ritual purposes.
archeology The find is “evidence for the earliest commercial use of chickens outside their original range,” archaeologists Guy Bar-Oz, Adi Ehrlich, Ayelet Gilboa and Lee Perry-Gal wrote in their study published last week in the US science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. “It used to be thought that the commercial use of chickens began in Europe,” says Lee Perry-Gal, co-author of The Jewish General. “But our findings show that it started in our region.”
Crucible chickens originated in East Asia, where they were domesticated as early as the sixth millennium BC, Perry-Gal explains. How they found their way to the Middle East is unknown; however, it has been proven that people there were familiar with chickens for thousands of years before they even thought of eating them. Instead, they used the animals for ritual purposes – or pitted roosters against each other for fun.
Israeli researchers do not know why they did not think of trying animal meat earlier. Perhaps there was some kind of taboo against eating poultry, says Perry-Gal. “In the textual sources of that period, all kinds of animals, except chickens, are mentioned as a source of food. Instead, they will be remembered as an exceptional gift at funerals.”
mosaics Sometime between the fourth and second centuries BC, the season of prohibition for birds came to an end. What exactly prompted the inhabitants of Marissa to plant animals in a pot, it is impossible to say. However, there are quite understandable reasons why the culinary revolution happened here. “Marissa was kind of the New York of that time,” Perry-Gal says. “A very mixed population lived there: Nabateans, Edomites, Jews, Greeks. And everyone brought with them their own traditions, religions, languages and customs.” In this mosaic of cultures, new ideas could flourish more easily than elsewhere. Also, these ideas could easily spread from there. Because Marissa was on an important trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt and close to the Mediterranean Sea.
Haifa researchers suspect that the residents of Marissa not only kept chickens for their own needs, but also traded them. “We found over 1,000 bones,” says Perry-Gal. “This indicates a normal industry.”
The chickens were then cooked, probably also used to make soups, but not roasted or grilled: very few remains show signs of exposure to fire, the researcher says.
In the first century BC, the Romans conquered this territory. Apparently, they liked Marissa’s culinary company, so they brought the food to Europe, where it quickly spread. “From the first century BC onwards, chickens can be seen in almost every center of the Roman Empire in Europe,” says Perry-Gal. “A real trend began: chicken meat was a novelty, everyone wanted it.”
The researcher adds that the first surviving Roman instructions for cooking chickens also date from that time. One of the earliest known recipes was written by the famous cook Apicius, who lived at the time. In their study, the researchers found that Marissa’s human innovation was a “decisive step” in introducing chicken fattening to European agriculture. With far-reaching consequences: the average EU citizen now consumes 23 kilograms of poultry meat per year. Pork is even more popular.
Plant And chicken meat is far from the only culinary innovation created by the land east of the Mediterranean. Recently, an Israeli-American team of researchers discovered evidence that people on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were growing plants for food as early as 23,000 years ago – 11,000 years earlier than previously known.
“It’s just a small region that has a lot of surprises,” says archaeologist Perry-Gal, adding with a laugh, “Just like today, actually.”