The Pig and the Chicken in the Middle East

May 5th, 2015

A chicken on a limestone fragment found by Howard Carter on the slope in front of Tutankhamun's tomb.

A chicken on a limestone fragment found by Howard Carter in front of Tutankhamun’s tomb.


Sometime around 1000 B.C.E. pig use in the Middle East declined and was subsequently religiously prohibited. Around the same time that pork fell out of favor, chickens were introduced into the area.

AERA Chief Research Officer Dr. Richard Redding’s paper examining the historical reasons for the decline of the pig (and the rise of the chicken) has been featured in the Smithsonian and the New Historian.

The full text of his article, The Pig and the Chicken in the Middle East: Modeling Human Subsistence Behavior in the Archaeological Record Using Historical and Animal Husbandry Data, is available in the Journal of Archaeological Research.


Abstract: The role of the pig in the subsistence system of the Middle East has a long and, in some cases, poorly understood history. It is a common domesticated animal in earlier archaeological sites throughout the Middle East. Sometime in the first millennium, BC pig use declined, and subsequently it became prohibited in large areas of the Middle East. The pig is an excellent source of protein, but because of low mobility and high water needs, it is difficult to move long distances. While common in sites, the pig is rarely mentioned in texts. In contrast, the use of cattle, sheep, and goats is extensively documented. In the human subsistence system of the arid and semiarid areas of the Middle East, the pig was a household-based protein resource that was not of interest to the central authority. Sometime in the late second or first millennium BC, the chicken was introduced into the Middle East. The chicken is an even more ideal household-based protein resource and, like the pig, is rarely mentioned in texts. In arid and semiarid areas of the Middle East, the pig and the chicken compete for food and labor in the human subsistence system. I hypothesize that in arid and semiarid areas of the Middle East, the chicken largely replaced the pig because the chicken is a more efficient source of protein, it produces a secondary product, the egg, and it is a smaller package; hence, a family can consume one in a day or two. This made the pig redundant and available for use in other human systems. The pig, however, never disappeared from the diet of humans in the Middle East.

The full article is available in the Journal of Archaeological Research.