What came first: the chicken or the egg? There are several theories. Some
scientists agree on the theory that chicken eggs developed as dinosaurs evolved
into birds, thus reptile eggs came first. Others believe the chicken came first
based on a protein found in both eggs and chickens. But whatever the case,
chickens originated in India and Thailand from the single Red Junglefowl breed
and evolved through the centuries into hundreds of breeds as they were carried
from continent to continent.
The origin and history of chickens
It may be hard to imagine, but sketches of chickens found on shards of pottery
and on cave walls suggest that during the Roman Empire, these birds were
worshipped. Long before being considered a menu item, they were used as
sacrifices to Roman and Greek gods. In Greek culture, the Greeks would offer
chickens as sacrifices to the gods to try to appease them or in the hopes of
receiving something they wanted. The Romans, who were a superstitious people,
believed slaughtering a chicken could help them make decisions in battle. “The
Keeper of the Sacred Chickens” was a position in the army and a title one of the
soldiers held. Romans carried a cage of sacred chickens with them when they
went to war. They would throw food and crumble at the bottom of the chicken
cages when the troops needed assistance, such as when they should attack. If the
chickens ate, it was a sign that everything was fine. If they did not eat, then
something was wrong, and the soldiers were to take caution.
In one particular battle, when the Keeper of the Sacred Chickens fed the birds,
they did not eat. The Roman general Publius Claudius Pulcher was headstrong
and ignored the birds; he tossed their cage into the sea. He said they could drink
if they did not want to eat. The Romans then lost their battle, the Battle of
So how did hens and roosters get from Asia and Europe to America? History
suggests Christopher Columbus carried chickens with him on his ships from
Italy during his second voyage to the New World. With today’s ever-changing
technology, scientists still search for more specific answers and are conducting
DNA testing on remnants of chicken bones found in North and South America.
These bones may predate Columbus, indicating the birds were there before he
landed on the continent. If this is the case, a breed of chicken may have
developed in the Western Hemisphere from another breed of bird, or another
explorer might have brought chickens with him.
From 1500 to the 1900s, chickens were raised on small farms and in family
backyards primarily for producing eggs. America’s poultry industry did not
come to fruition until 1923, when Celia Steele, a housewife in Sussex County,
Delaware, had the foresight to see that chickens also could be sold as broilers
and not just layers. A broiler chicken is raised for meat, and a layer lays eggs.
She saw the profit potential and purchased 500 chicks intending to sell them for
meat. At the time, poultry was a delicacy and typically was not sold for meat, so
Steele’s first flock sold for 62 cents per pound. Later in 1924, the birds sold for
57 cents per pound, which is the equivalent today of close to $15 per pound.
Homemakers and restaurant owners discovered the versatility of preparing
chicken (frying, broiling, roasting, and as stew meat), causing demand to
By 1926, Steele’s flock increased to 10,000, and less than ten years later, the
prospering Steeles owned seven farms. Even today, Delaware, the birthplace of
the broiler chicken industry, remains one of the country’s biggest chicken
producers; the state delivers millions of birds each year.
The 1940s saw the integration of the chicken industry. Before that time, feed
mills, farms, processing operations, and hatcheries worked independently of
each other, according to the National Chicken Council. The integration of these
made the chicken industry more efficient and streamlined — the feed mills
loaned money to the farms to buy chicks from the hatcheries. When farmers sold
the flock to the processors, they used the money they received from the
processors to pay back the feed mills. This practice became more common and
regulated as chicken consumption increased. Refrigeration also helped the
industry because it allowed consumers to store their meat longer.