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How Did the Chicken Cross the Ocean?

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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 Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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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