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.

Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?

When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios