Thursday, July 3, 2014

Beaker Chickens?

Can some inlaid beaker pottery tell us when chickens entered Western Europe?
The White-faced Iberian Blacks, one of several ancient chicken races

Several days ago I posted a paper by Všianský, Kolář & Petřík who analyzed the elements of white inlay of Beaker pottery.  I thought about it while reading a paper on the mitochondrial diversity and dispersion of domesticated chickens from Southeast Asia.

The encrustation of "white inlays on a red-slipped ware" seems to have been very common throughout the entire Beaker horizon.  According to the Vsiansky paper, bone paste was the more frequent choice in Central Europe (and Britain and Spain), whereas calcium carbonate ranked second followed by gypsum or a combination of materials thirdly. 

Pavla Růžičková pasting a beaker "Beaker Days, 2005"
Since calcium carbonate paste was applied after the main firing, it may be possible to discern the crystalline structure, unique for the eggshell and whether it contains coccoliths or not, which would tells us where the potters extracted the calcium carbonate from or whether they manufactured it themselves. (1)

As I mentioned before, I haven't actually read the Vsiansky paper since it is behind a pay-wall, so a connection between calcium carbonate paste and eggshells may have already been made.  But with the exception of several coastal outcrops in the Northwest, I doubt Central Europe has much white chalk, much less greyish chalk.  Eggshell on the other hand, if available, is about 95% calcium carbonate.  So did Moravian Beakers have access to chicken eggs?

Now let me quote from "The Cambridge World History of Food" (Kiple, Ornelas, 2000)

[Europe]  The discovery of bones - collated by West and Zhou (1988) - in central Asia seems to indicate that the chicken had reached the borders of Europe by 3000 B.C.  The earliest finds come from Romania, Turkey, and Greece, where there are at least eight late Neolithic and early Bronze Age sites from which bones have been dated to the third millennium B.C...
The ancient "English Dorking"
West and Zhou (1989) actually suggest the migration of Cambodian jungle fowl as being domesticated in Northeastern China about 7,000 years ago and spreading Greece and Iran as early as 4,000 B.C.  Surprisingly, they show chickens spreading to the Indian Subcontinent much later, the Middle East as well.

More recently, Zlatozar Boev (2009) showed heavy game fowling and poultry-breeding at a site in Bulgaria which included the Gallus gallus domestica dated to approximately 3,500 B.C.  According to Boev this large Leghorn fryer was prevalent across Bulgaria at that time.  This fits classical notions of gallus, with Balkan & Greek birds being largely fryers and Italian & Iranian birds being primarily egg-layers.  He further notes:

It is interesting to mention, that Gallus gallus, believed to have been introduced in
the Iberian Peninsula (HERNANDEZ 1992) in the Early Iron Age (8th century BC), has been probably spread there even in the Chalcolithic (GOURICHON, CARDOSO
The Storey et al paper (2010) gives some further insights on the genetic origins of European chickens which may reflect the egg-layer and the fryer:
The distribution of chickens from Asian domestication centers through the Middle East and Europe has been traced along two distinct routes of dispersal using historical, archaeological, and morphological evidence [12,19,22]. If these reconstructions are
correct then at least two distinct domestication centers contributed chickens to ancient European flocks.

As to the Corded Ware Culture, I find it hard to believe people with origins in the North Pontic Sea did not have chickens.  It is also difficult to imagine that the Bell Beaker peoples did not have chickens being the international traders par excellence.  For that matter, it's hard to imagine Funnelbeaker or Lengyel "farm-wagon" people not having acquired chickens in their later years.

So the question, do the carbonate pastes in Central Europe show the structure of chalk, egg or manufacture?

"Pigment Compendium" (2008)*


  1. Off topic: this newly published study on the chronology of beakers in Portugal's Estremadura will almost certainly interest you:

    1. I just noticed, it was Gourichon (and Cardoso from the this paper you sent me) that are cited above with reference to avian remains in Portugal. Unfortunately that paper is behind a paywall

    2. Certainly it's a great pity that the study mentioned here is pay-per-view.

      What you mention about chickens and the possibility that beaker paste may be informative about them is interesting in any case but it's hard to comment without a more direct knowledge of the key details.

  2. Wow, this is a big paper. I'll put up after I have time to read it more carefully.
    Thanks for sending, I really appreciate it!!


    New paper on European chickens 2022