How Did the Chicken Cross the Ocean?

At some point in the last few thousand years, someone in India or Southeast Asia decided to try catching one of the wild fowl than ran through the jungles and roosted up in the trees. We don’t know exactly what that person was intending, but the bird probably wasn’t destined to be stuffed and roasted or battered and fried. Archaeological evidence suggests that the birds were first caught for cockfighting (pit matches between wild partridges and quails were already common), and the idea of eating them didn’t come until later. Whatever the purpose, jungle fowl were brought into villages in droves, and eventually domesticated.

The common barnyard chicken we know and love around the world today is the hybrid descendant of two of these wild junglefowl species—the red junglefowl and the grey junglefowl—which went global with the movement of people. We have a pretty good handle on when and how they got to Europe and Africa, but exactly who brought them to the New World and when is murky, and even a little controversial.

Getting to the Other Side

For a long time the conventional wisdom said Europeans brought domestic chickens to the Americas as they established colonies in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ journey. The catch, though, is that when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in the cities of the Incan empire (in what is now Peru) in 1532, domestic chickens were already well integrated into the local culture, being both eaten and used in religious ceremonies. The birds certainly seemed to have been there longer than the few decades since the first European contact, but the idea of pre-Columbian New World chickens was roundly dismissed and forgotten for almost 500 years.

In 2002, archaeologists discovered chicken bones at a pre-Columbian site along the coast of Chile, allowing the age and origin of New World chickens to be studied. An international team of scientists, led by Australian Alice Storey, got a hold of the bones in 2007, radiocarbon-dated one of them, and ran DNA sequences. Their tests suggested that the bone had been there since sometime between 1304 and 1424, well before Europeans even had a whiff of the Americas.

But then how did they get there from Asia? They can’t fly, and not all of them take to swimming as well as this guy. The ancient chicken’s DNA included a unique genetic sequence identical to ones from prehistoric chickens dug up in Tonga and Samoa, suggesting that maybe the chickens had come to South America with early Polynesian explorers some 70 years or more before Europeans “discovered” America.

Polynesian Chicken?

Just a year after Storey’s team published their study, another international group of researchers, led by Australian Jaime Gongora, published another chicken study in the same journal. This group questioned Storey’s conclusions and, after conducting their own DNA analysis, couldn’t find any support for the Polynesian chicken conclusion. They showed that the genetic mutation that linked the ancient Polynesian and South American chickens was actually fairly common in different breeds of the bird worldwide. The South American chickens could have come Polynesia or from almost anywhere else in the world that already had chickens at the time, and extensive genetic surveys of modern South American chickens led back to exclusively European origins. Gongora’s team also questioned Storey’s dating of the bone; the site where it was found, El Arenal, is just a few miles from the ocean, so it’s possible that carbon from the ocean could have found its way into the chicken’s diet and skewed the dating.

Storey’s team conceded that the mutation they found may not have been unique, but they said the genetics were irrelevant if their carbon dating was right. Any chicken bones that fell in the date range of 1000 to 1400 fit within the era of eastward Polynesian exploration, and there was no evidence that any other Asian peoples had reached South America at that time or before. They went back to the bones again and recently published the results of their second carbon dating test.

This time around they used three bones instead of just one, and checked for any evidence of seafood or marine plants in the chickens’ diets that could cause a carbon problem. The new dating suggested that the bones were from 1304 at the earliest and 1459 at the latest, possibly more recent than they had first thought, but still ahead of the Europeans. The dates, combined with other evidence of Polynesian contact with the Americas - the appearance of South American sweet potatoes in the Pacific pre-European contact and a similarity in the Quechua and Polynesian names for the vegetable (kumar and kumara) -  suggest that it was Polynesians in wooden rafts who dragged the chicken, kicking and clucking, into the age of exploration and beat Columbus to the New World.

Big Questions
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?

Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Big Questions
Why Do We Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Every year, over 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets started in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as "krewes"—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap, sweatshop-made plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. This year, they've installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as seasonal stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; last year, 46 tons of the beads were left in the gutters and drains. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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