Six chickens, three graduate students, one postdoc researcher and an archaeology professor have given new meaning to the term “social science.” The investigators cooked and ate the poultry over three meals together as part of a study published in the Journal of Archeological Science, satisfying their appetites as scholars, social animals and hungry humans.
We saw a hole in the knowledge about how birds became food. To better understand that, we needed markers of whether bird remains came from people’s consumption of them or from natural occurrences. Our main goal was to describe some of the ways in which the butchering, cooking and eating of birds are evidenced in the bones that are left after the meal.
As archaeologists, it’s important that we understand humans’ relationships with animals, and that includes animals as food. I happen to focus on birds. They’re so prominent throughout the cultures of the world, and yet we know very little about them in this aspect. We used chickens in our study because they’re common in this country, but they’re really a proxy for any medium-sized bird. Just about everywhere else in the world, all kinds of birds are considered food.
After analyzing the leftovers in the lab, we were able to make some general statements that should be useful to the field. We were surprised to find a lot of variation in people’s eating styles in terms of “finickiness”—how fully they engage with the chicken as an animal structure, whether they eat all the way down to the bone. That tells us that while broader cultural patterns exist, individual differences also need to be considered.
We couldn’t do it in the lab because it’s not a clean space, so we went to my house. In order to emulate the long-term relationship people have had globally with birds as food, we cooked the chickens in three different ways that are common across time and cultures. Basically, that’s boiling, roasting, grilling— wet cook, dry cook, flame cook.
The first time was a little awkward—here these students are at a faculty member’s house, not completely comfortable in the setting. But by the second and third meals, people were moving all around my kitchen, they had the salad spinner out, they’re out at the grill. The rule for the experiment was that everyone had to eat as they normally eat at home when no one’s watching—no “stranger manners” allowed.
I think the best part is that we made a scientific contribution that also forged a human connection, and that came out of our sharing food together. It really changed the research experience into something more social, collaborative and noncompetitive. We’ll all know each other for the rest of our careers because of this.