Printer Friendly

Chickens in Africa: the importance of Qasr Ibrim.

An articulated hen's skeleton, set under the doorway of a building at the celebrated desiccated site of Qasr Ibrim in Egyptian Nubia, is cause to look again at the flight of chickens into Africa.

This paper was submitted in honour of Dr Juliet Clutton-Brock of the British Museum (Natural History).


The introduction of the chicken into Egypt and its use, whether ritual or alimentary, has remained a subject of active supposition over the past 70 years (cf. Carter 1923; Zeuner 1963; Darby et al. 1977; Houlihan 1986). Ongoing excavations in Egypt stand to provide important archaeozoological data which may clarify the development of the chicken as an important economic, and perhaps symbolic, resource in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. In Nubia, the site of Qasr Ibrim (FIGURE 1) has already shown significant changes in agricultural regimes during the first half of the 1st millennium AD. Preliminary work by Rowley-Conwy (1989a) suggests that the later Meroitic and post-Meroitic periods (c. AD 1--550) witness the first appearance of a number of tropical African crops in Nubia, as well as the spread southwards from Egypt of new types of wheat. These agricultural innovations would seem to reflect more wide-ranging contacts between the Lower Nile Valley, Central Sudan, and, indeed, other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Within this context, the discovery of chicken remains at Qasr Ibrim is of particular interest.


Archaeological context

Qasr Ibrim was an important Nubian settlement from at least the early 1st millennium BC until the 19th century AD. A programme of excavations, sponsored by the Egyptian Exploration Society, has continued at the site since the early 1960s. During the 1992 season, work concentrated on a complex of Post-Meroitic rooms, X-265 (previously X-29) lying on the east side of Magazine Street at the south end of a range of buildings adjoining Tavern Street (Plumley et al. 1976: 34--5, figure B). Here, as elsewhere at the site, preservation of organic materials is phenomenal due to extreme aridity. During the excavation of the primary floor of Room 8 on the west side of this complex, a semiarticulated cluster of bird bones was recovered sealed within the packed mud floor of the room, just inside the doorway. While faunal samples from previous seasons have yet to be systematically analysed, preliminary work has indicated that bird bones are uncommon in the site's faunal assemblage during this period (Rowley-Conwy 1989b). The condition and arrangement of the bones suggested careful deposition. The highly comminuted nature of the sub-floor deposits relating to an earlier plaza makes it almost inconceivable that these intact bones from a single individual were included by chance in the floor make-up. Furthermore, on the north side of the doorway underlying the door jamb, a large group of feathers had been deposited. The taxonomic affiliation of these feathers has yet to be assessed, but they may well pertain to the near-by skeleton. The notion of a 'ritual' deposit was supported by the discovery of part of a copper-alloy anthropomorphic statue and a number of liquid-soaked textile fragments built into the room's stone walls. Comparable bundles of liquid-soaked cloth, possibly some form of votive offering, had been found in contexts of similar date within one of the late temples on the site during 1986 (Driskell et al. 1989: 27--8). Architectural analysis of the building indicates that this room was a late addition to the core structure, which is consistent with preliminary ceramic studies, which also suggest a relatively late Post-Meroitic ('X-Group') date, probably in the late 5th century AD.

The fowl

The remains recovered were those of a single individual. The bones were well preserved, with very little breakage, and some skin and ligaments still adhering to the tarsometatarsi. A knotted piece of plant fibre, found in association with the remains, may have been used to bind the legs. The body part representation of these remains is highly curious, as it includes the cranium, the ribs, the innominate (excluding the synsacrum) and most limb bones (including all phalanges), but lacks the vertebral column and several pairs of limb bones (see FIGURE 2). The method of disarticulation is also unusual: the ribs and the ilium appear to have been cut or snapped rather than cleanly chopped, the basal coracoids are only slightly damaged although the sternum is missing, no damage is visible related to the removal of the tibiotarsus from the proximal tarsometatarsus, and single cut-marks are visible on one of the acetabula where the femur was evidently removed. The scapula and coracoid, the tarsometatarsi and their phalanges and the wing bones distal of the humerus were articulated when recovered. It would appear that some of these remains were carefully disarticulated, the primary meat-bearing elements and the vertebral column were removed, and the remaining elements buried. Disarticulation may have been assisted by cooking, probably boiling as the remains are uncharred.


On morphological and metrical criteria, these remains are definitely those of the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) and not of other phasianids which may have existed or been imported into the region, including the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), partridges (Alectoris sp.) or francolins (Francolinus sp.). Criteria for distinguishing domestic chicken from the guinea fowl and the frncolins are presented in MacDonald (1992). Partridges, in many ways morphologically similar to francolins, share such traits as the basal articular morphology of the coracoid and the possession of a projecting acromion process on the scapula, which differentiate them from smaller chickens.

As the remains are fully formed and show no traces of immaturity, and as the tarsometatarsus shows no trace of spur formation, they are almost certainly those of a hen and not a cock.

Metrical relation to other chicken populations

As this articulated find is very unusual, we report the measurements in detail (see TABLE 1). All measurements were taken following the system of von den Driesch (1976).
bone mm bone mm
Cranium -- GB 24 Ulna -- Dip 10.1
Mandibular 42.2 Ulna -- Did 7.3
 -- LaF
Coracoid -- GL 43.4 Carpometacarpus -- GL 30.9
Scapula -- GL 44.5 Carpometacarpus -- BP 9.6
Scapula -- Dic 9.5 Carpal Phalanx 1 -- GL 12.2
Radius -- GL 51.5 Pelvis -- DiA 5.2
Radius -- BD 5.6 Tarsometatarsus -- GL 61.8
Ulna -- GL 54 Tarsometatarsus -- BP 11
Ulna -- BP 7.1 Tarsometatarsus -- BD 10.9

The Qasr Ibrim hen is a small individual (TABLE 1, FIGURE 3) comparable in size to modern bantam breeds, wild jungle-fowl and the Iron Age domestic chickens of Mali and Europe. The small size of domestic chickens in Europe before the Roman era and in Africa until modern times is increasingly recognised (cf. Thesing 1977; MacDonald 1992). This is most probably due to the semi-feral state of pre-Roman and African domesticates, usually left to forage for their own food or given nutritionally poor foodstuffs (MacDonald 1992).



It has been believed that the earliest skeletal remains attributable to the domestic chicken in Africa were those from Thebes, tentatively dated to Dynasty XVIII (c. 1567--1320 BC) (Darby et al. 1997: 301). From the illustration given (Darby et al. 1977: figure 6.32), however, these would appear to be mixed remains from several individuals, including some waterfowl (anseriformes) and diurnal predatory birds (falconiformes). A recent examination of this material, housed in the Agricultural Museum (Dokki, Egypt), by von den Driesch (pers. comm.) revealed absolutely no chicken amongst these remains. Although it is generally believed that the chicken was introduced to Egypt as a 'farmyard animal' along with European domestic geese in the Persian period (Dynasty XXVII, beginning 525 BC), we have no definite osteological evidence for the presence of domestic fowl in Egypt until the beginning of the Greco-Roman period (c. 332 BC) (Boessneck 1986; 1988). Remains from Ptolemaic and early Roman contexts (c. 332 BC to 200 AD) are known from the site of Tell Maskhuta in the eastern Nile Delta, and the earliest physical evidence for the domestic fowl from Upper Egypt has come from intrusive Coptic contexts (c. post 400 AD) at the necropolis of Elephantine (Boessneck & von den Driesch 1982; Boessneck 1986; Katzmann 1990). Chicken remains are also quantitatively very rare compared with those of waterfowl in the sites from which they have been recovered. It is doubtful that chickens became common in Egypt until sometime after the Ptolemaic period (post 30 BC).

The earliest pictorial evidence, broadly coeval with the supposed early skeletal remains from Thebes, comes from a painted limestone fragment of a cock also dated to the New Kingdom (c. 1425--1123 BC), or possibly more precisely to Dynasty XIX (Carter 1923: 1; Houlihan 1986: 79). In the Ptolemaic period, depictions of fowl increase, for the most part roosters rather than hens. The tomb of Petosiris, dating to the 4th century BC, provides two representations of cocks amongst the funerary offerings (Lefebvre 1923: volume III, plates XXXV, XLVII). Whether these can be interpreted as evidence for the 'consumption' of chicken, as suggested by Houlihan (1986: 81), is doubtful. The funerary context need not, of course, reflect domestic circumstances and the two cocks are depicted in a manner very different from the numerous ducks, geese and other birds in the offering scenes, suggesting a more symbolic role for the cocks. Outside Egypt, the earliest representation of chickens in Africa is a single anomalous occurrence on ivory plaques from the Dynasty XXV tomb of Iretirou, at Nuri in north Sudan (mid 7th century BC) (Dunham 1955: 37). However, the source of these plaques is uncertain and local manufacture is unlikely. At Meroe, a number of what are probably chickens are depicted on the chapel wall of the royal pyramid Beg. N. 11. The dating of this tomb is uncertain and the suggested early-2nd-century BC date remains tentative (Lepsius 1849--55: volume V, plate 29; Dunham 1957: 72). A loose fragment of sculpture depicting roosters found at Faras in Sudanese Nubia (Griffith 1926: 35, plate XXX.5), seems likely to be of late Meroitic date. It would seem that the lack of chicken remains and the scarcity of representations in dynastic Egypt are indeed due to a real rarity, if not an absence, of the domestic fowl prior to the Ptolemaic period, apart from 'exotics'.

The chicken at Qasr Ibrim dating to the late 5h or early 6th centuries AD, further evidence for north--south contacts along the Nile Valley during the Post-Meroitic period (cf. Rowley-Conwy 1989a), may show the route followed by the chicken during its dispersion into sub-Saharan Africa. Extensive modern archaeo-zoological studies at earlier sites in central Sudan such as Meroe (Carter & Foley 1980) and Kerma (Chaix 1990) provide no osteological evidence for domestic fowl. Although a single find of 'chicken bones' was reported from a ritual deposit in the chapel of a very late Meroitic pyramid (Beg. N. 36; dated by Dunham to c. 228--246 AD), this important identification remains unconfirmed (Dunham 1957: 184). At present, the earliest known remains for chicken elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa are from Jenne-jeno (Mali) and date to between 450 and 850 AD (MacDonald 1992). Remains dating to after 800 AD are known from most of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa (MacDonald 1992). Thus, the remains from Qasr Ibrim may be seen to represent the earliest known incidence of domestic chicken in Africa south of the Tropic of Cancer (see FIGURE 4).


As well as the Nile corridor, the other two possible routes for diffusion of the chicken into sub-Saharan Africa are from the North African littoral and the East African coast. The Phoenicians played the primary role in popularizing the domestic fowl across the Mediterranean region; the earliest positive osteological evidence for domestic chickens from Sicily and southern Spain are linked with Phoenician settlements dating to c. 800--600 BC (Ryder 1975; Carrasquilla 1992). Unfortunately we have no data from Phoenician sites along the North African littoral, particularly Carthage, where it is probable that chicken was present. Early evidence for trans-Saharan commerce remains problematic, so it is doubtful that chickens, if present, could have followed this route until much later. The appearance of chicken remains in sites along the East African coast dating to the 9th century are most probably related to Indian Ocean trade which, although foreshadowed by earlier coastal voyages, did not begin in earnest until c. 800 AD (Phillipson 1988: 197). It would appear that the chicken was most likely introduced to Qasr Ibrim and into the Sudan from the north along the Nile corridor. The early remains from Jenne-jeno and other Sahelian sites may be attributed either to east--west trade along the Sahelo--Sudanic belt or to trans-Saharan camel caravan trade from the North African littoral, which may have begun as early the 5th century AD (Curtin 1985).

Acknowledgements. We would like to acknowledge the support of the Egyptian Exploration Society, sponsor of the Qasr Ibrim expedition, and the many members of the field staff who have helped with the excavations. Thanks to M. Whewell, B. West and others who have commented on this paper, and to Rachel MacDonald for assistance with German texts. We would also like to thank Professor Dr Angela von den Driesch (Inst. f. Palaoanatomie, Munich) for several valuable conversations concerning the domestic fowl. The research of KM was supported under a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (USA).


BOESSNECK, J. 1986. Vogelknochenfunde aus dem alten Agypten, Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien 88/89: 323--44. 1988. Die Tierwelt des alten Agypten. Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck.

BOESSNECK, J. & A. VON DEN DRIESCH. 1982. Studien an subfossilen Tierknochen aus Agypten. Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag. Muncher Agyptologische Studien Heft 40.

CARTER, H. 1923. An ostracon depicting a red junglefowl (the earliest known drawing of the domestic cock), Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 9: 1--4.

CARTER, P. & R. FOLEY. 1980. A report on the fauna from the excavations at Meroe, 1967--1972, in P. Shinnie & R. Bradley (ed.), The capital of Kush 1 (Meroitica 4): 298--309. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

CARRASQUILLA, F. HERNANDEZ. 1992. Some comments on the introduction of the domestc fowl in Iberia, Archaeofauna 1: 45--53.

CHAIX, L. 1990. Le monde animal, in C. Bonnet (ed.), Kerma, royaume de Nubie: 109--113. Geneva: Mission archeologique de l'Universite de Geneve au Soudan.

CONNAH, G. 1981. Three thousand years in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

CURTIN, P.D. 1985 The external trade of West Africa to 1800, in J.F.A. Ajayi & M. Crowder (ed.), History of West Africa 1: 624--647. 3rd edition. New York (NY): Longman.

DARBY, W.J., P. GHALIONGUI & L. GRIVETTI. 1977. Food the gift of Osiris 1. London: Academic Press.

DRIESCH, A. VON DEN. 1976. A guide to the measurement of animal bones from archaeological sites. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press. Peabody Museum Bulletin 1.

DRISKELL, B., N. ADAMS & P. FRENCH. 1989. A newly discovered temple at Qasr Ibrim: preliminary report, Archeologie du Nil Moyen 3: 11--54.

DUNHAM, D. 1955. The Royal Cemeteries of Kush 2: Nuri. Boston (MA): Museum of Fine Arts. 1957. The Royal Cemeteries of Kush 4: Royal tombs of Meroe and Barkal. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.

GRIFFITH, F.L. 1926. Oxford excavations in Nubia, Liverpool Annals of Archaeology & Anthropology XIII.

HOULIHAN, P.F. 1986. The natural history of Egypt 1: The birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.

KATZMANN, L. 1990. Tierknochenfunde aus Elephantine in Oberagypten (Grabungsjahre 1976 bis 1986/87) Vogel, Reptilien, Fische und Mollusken. Doctoral dissertation, Universitat Munchen.

LEPSIUS, C.R. 1849--55. Denkmaler aus Aegytpen und Aethiopien. Leipzig.

LEFEBVRE, M.G. 1923. Le tombeau de Petosiris III. Cairo: IFAO.

MACDONALD, K.C. 1992. The domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) in sub-Saharan Africa: a background to its introduction and its osteological differentiation from indigenous fowls (Numidinae and Francolinus sp.), Journal of Archaeological Science 19: 303--18.

PLUMLEY, J., W.Y. ADAMS & E. CROWFOOT. 1977. Qasr Ibrim 1976, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63: 29--47.

PHILLIPSON, D.W. 1988. African archaeology. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ROWLEY-CONWY, P. 1989a. Nubia AD 0--550 and the 'Islamic' agricultural revolution: preliminary botanical evidence from Qasr Ibrim, Egyptian Nubia, Archeologie du Nil Moyen 3: 131--8. 1989b. Bird bones from the temple at Qasr Ibrim, in Driskell et al. (1989): 35--8.

RYDER, M.L. 1975. Some Phoenician animal remains from Sicily, in A.T. Clason (ed.), Archaeozoological studies: 213--18. New York (NY): Elsevier.

SINCLAIR, P. 1982. Chibuene -- an early trading site in southern Mozambique, Paideuma 28: 149--164.

THESING, R. 1977. Die GroBentwicklung des Haushuhns in vor- und fruhgeschichtlicher Zeit. Doctoral dissertation, Universitat Munchen.

VAN NEER, W. 1990. Les faunes de vertebres quaternaires en Afrique Centrale, in R. Lanfranchi & D. Scwartz (ed.), Paysages quaternaires de l'Afrique Centrale Atlantique: 289--327. Paris: ORSTOM.

ZEUNER, F. 1963. A history of domesticated animals. London: Hutchinson.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:the diffusion of domesticated chickens and the Qasr Ibrim archaeological site in Egypt
Author:MacDonald, Kevin C.; Edwards, David N.
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Dendrochronological dating of the Viking Age ship burials at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune, Norway.
Next Article:A new Bactrian find from southeastern Arabia.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters