Want to see a really good fight? Get a few anthropologists together in a room and ask them when chickens first arrived in the New World. Then back away and start placing your bets.
How chickens came to the Americas is one of the great unresolved anthropological debates. On the one hand you have those who believe chickens arrived in the New World with the Spaniards and/or Portuguese. On the other you have those who contend that chickens arrived far earlier and from the other direction, via the Polynesians. A few outliers claim ancient Egyptian seafarers brought them, but most of those types also believe in the Loch Ness Monster.
For what it’s worth, I think the preponderance of evidence is on the Polynesian side. True, early explorers like Vicente Pinzón and Pedro Cabral had chickens with them when they made landfall in Brazil. However when Pizarro arrived on the other side of the Continent some 30 years later to initiate his conquest of the Incas, he found an extremely well-established chicken culture — more well-established than one would expect if chickens had only been introduced 30 years before, and then on the other side of South America. Just how well-established was it? Well, not only did Pizarro note quite a few chicken-inspired place names, people names and artworks, he also noticed that the words for chicken and egg weren’t even remotely European-sounding.
On top of that, in a nearby region now part of modern Chile, the natives had their own breed of chicken: the Araucana. These birds were/are not only feathered differently than European chickens (they have no tail and tufts of feathers around their ears) they lay blue and green eggs, the only breed of chicken in the world that does that. Could so unique a bird have evolved in a mere 30 years — some 1,000 miles away from the coast of Brazil? Many researchers have insisted not, and in fact a few have even advanced the idea that the New World had its own breed of indigenous chicken. I believe genetic analysis has thoroughly stomped all over that theory.
And indeed geneticists have lately tried to stomp all over the Polynesian theory as well. They’ve argued that chicken bones found in South American have genetic similarities to European/Indian/ Southeast Asian chickens. But then all chickens have genetic similarities to European/ Indian/ Southeast Asian chickens. Those same scientists also argue that chicken bones found on Easter Island are more genetically similar to chickens from Japan and China than to European/ Indian/ Southeast Asian chickens.
Yet to my mind that only shows that some chickens in Polynesia were Chinese in origin. It by no means proves that all chickens in Polynesia were Chinese in origin. Polynesia is a huge area…who knows what sort of chickens some populations of Polynesians might have kept — and brought with them to South America?
When you consider that prehistoric Polynesians are known to have introduced the sweet potato, bottle gourd and possibly even a type of canoe and fishhook to the Americas — and that they liked to bring animals like pigs, dogs and chickens with them when they traveled — the evidence seems awfully strong that chickens arrived in the Americas from the West. The DNA and carbon data may just need to catch up.
Still, it seems we’re a long way off in terms of answering the question definitively. Which means cockfighting of the academic stripe will continue to be good sport for years to come.