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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.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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