English | Science | History

Chickens have magic powers, says professor

Do hens and roosters deserve more respect? Today's prosaic bird was once the “cosmic chicken” – exotic, sacred, taboo and companion of iron age warriors to their graves. The rooster stares down its opponent. Suddenly, it launches forward. As the cockerels’ claws clash in an epic battle, the crowd erupts with joy.  This is what life looked like for a chicken in Roman Britain, according to leading archaeologist Naomi Sykes. But today, you are more likely to see a chicken on a supermarket shelf. Now Sykes, an expert in human-animal interactions, wants to change how people view the chicken.  Thousands of years ago chickens, which were brought to Europe from East Asia, had a sacred status. Early burials show that chickens were not killed for meat. Instead, cockerels were buried alongside humans.  For Sykes, it is proof: chickens were magical creatures. In Ancient Greece, cockfighting was a symbol of warfare. In East Timor, where cockerels represent ancestors, men use cockfighting to communicate with the supernatural.  Meanwhile, the Romans thought chickens could predict the future. They used them as fortune tellers during war.  But at some point, everything changed for the chicken. As the population grew, chickens lost their sacred status. People began to eat them.  Today, there are more chickens on earth than people. Many are packed into tiny cages on huge industrial farms.  Sykes and her team want to change the “widely held perception that chickens are just a cheap meat, that they are stupid and meaningless”.  And archaeologists are not the only ones calling for change. When neuroscientist Lori Marino studied a group of five-day-old chicks, she discovered they could do basic addition and subtraction.  One thing is clear: chickens have shaped human society in the past. Now, some believe that if we reassess our relationship with the birds, chickens could once again play a major role in human life.  Do hens and roosters deserve more respect? Eggstraordinary Yes: For centuries, chickens were revered worldwide as sacred beings. But today these intelligent creatures are packed into crowded cages. It is time we learnt to respect the chicken again.  No: Over time, cultures and priorities change. The chicken’s power came from its status as a rare and exotic bird. Now, few believe the commonplace chicken has any magical powers. Or… All animals are deserving of respect, whether they are birds or mammals or insects. Many today believe it is wrong to farm chickens intensively, but hens and roosters do not need a special status.        KeywordsArchaeologist - A person who studies history through the excavation of sites and artefacts.

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