What Was The First Bird To Be Domesticated?

Mostly everyone assumes that chickens were the first bird to be domesticated. But were they?

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It is often argued that taming wildlife and keeping them in captivity was our most consequential accomplishment because these animals provided a steady and secure source of critically important resources and services — meat, eggs, transportation, work, and more — to early humans. But, looking back, we often don’t know for certain when or where the first wild animals were domesticated.

Take birds, for example: Poultry — domesticated birds that are raised for their meat, eggs and feathers — are the most commonly farmed animals. Of these, chickens, Gallus gallus domesticus, currently account for approximately 92.9% of the world’s poultry, and they are at least five times more commonly farmed than are any mammalian livestock. This global preponderance of chickens makes many people assume that chickens were the first bird species to be domesticated. And they do have an ancient history. For example, chicken bones have been discovered that date from between the third and second millennium BC, whereas geese, turkeys, and peafowl have been found from the second millennium BC; and ducks and pigeons from the first millennium BC (ref & ref). But the history of when and where domestication of particular poultry occurred is highly controversial and not reliably documented.

A recently published study by a team of Japanese and Chinese scientists looked at domestication of the goose. Although China produces roughly 90% of the world’s domesticated geese, this is a very minor poultry species, whose numbers combined with guinea fowl comprise just 1.3% of all domesticated poultry, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (or FAO; more here).

This study is very rigorous, employing a variety of methods — histological, geochemical, biochemical, and morphological — to examine 232 ancient goose bones to determine when geese may have first been domesticated. The bones in this study were unearthed at the Tianluoshan archaeological site, which is a Stone Age settlement in the lower Yangtze River valley of China, occupied by rice farmers and hunter-gatherers between 7,000 and 5,500 years ago (Figure 1).

Earlier, archaeologists unearthed bones from a variety of avian species at every stratigraphic layer on this particular site, and concluded in an earlier study that the bones came from ducks (Anatinae), rails (Rallidae), and geese (Anserinae) that the local human population exploited whilst the birds wintered on inland waters nearby (ref).

“Butchering and manufacturing marks were found on the goose bones, suggesting that both locally bred and wild geese provided meat and raw materials for bone tools, such as awls, needle holders, and other instruments,” the researchers write in their paper (ref).

And yet, although the lower Yangtze River and adjacent regions typically host six species of wintering migratory goose species, it came as a surprise when four bones from juvenile geese were also unearthed on the site (Figure 2). Since geese don’t breed in this region, where did the juveniles come from? Were the local people actually breeding geese at Tianluoshan?

After close examinations and comparisons with bones from age-known immature goose specimens, the researchers concluded that the porous texture of the ulna (1; Figure 2), femur (2; Figure 2), and tibiotarsus (3; Figure 2) bones indicated they came from goslings that were 4-16 weeks old. The tarsometatarsus (4; Figure 2) bone was determined to be from a 4-8 week old individual, based on its unfused proximal tarsal bone. Obviously, none of these young geese could fly so they had to have hatched locally. But wild geese did not breed in this region in the the Early and Middle Holocene periods, which is consistent with the lack of any immature goose bones being discovered at the nearby village, Kuahuqiao, Liangzhu (Figure 1), nor at other Neolithic sites in the lower Yangtze River and adjacent regions.

Were these bones derived from locally hatched and raised individuals? To answer this question, the research team analyzed and measured oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bones and in their collagen. They found the oxygen isotopes matched the local water source (see Figure 1) and the carbon and nitrogen isotopes indicated that the adult geese consumed local seagrasses, sea algae and other plants. Furthermore, radiocarbon dating found that the bones were from 5000 B.C.E.

Although analysis of mature goose bones show they correspond to larger species, such as swan geese, bean geese, and greylag geese, they were all roughly the same size, indicating that the geese had been maintained as a local interbreeding population.

“The goose population appears to have been maintained for several generations without the introduction of individuals from other populations and may have been fed cultivated paddy rice”, the researchers report in their study (ref).

Were geese the first bird to be domesticated? Although a 2014 study claimed that chickens had been domesticated in northern China as early as 10,000 years ago (ref), that study is extremely controversial for a number of compelling reasons, including that the red jungle fowl, which is the domestic chicken’s likely wild ancestor, probably never lived that far north (ref). Thus, based on the data that we currently have, it appears that geese were domesticated 2,000 years before chickens were.

“These findings indicate that goose domestication dates back 7,000 years, making geese the oldest domesticated poultry species”, the researchers conclude in their study (ref).

Source:

Masaki Eda, Yu Itahashi, Hiroki Kikuchi, Guoping Sun, Kai-hsuan Hsu, Takashi Gakuhari, Minoru Yoneda, Leping Jiang, Guomei Yang, and Shinichi Nakamura (2022). Multiple lines of evidence of early goose domestication in a 7,000-y-old rice cultivation village in the lower Yangtze River, China, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119(12):e2117064119 | doi:10.1073/pnas.2117064119


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