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Will Our Time on Earth Be Preserved in Chicken Bones?

With each passing year, humans have a greater impact on the environment than the year before. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of contaminated waterways in India more than doubled and by 2015 more than half of the nation's rivers were polluted. 

Plastics are polluting the oceans and waterways, and even the micro fibers and microbeads in clothing are increasing the potential for catastrophic environmental and biological consequences. 

Every year an estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing are sold worldwide and each year Americans alone throw out 15 million tons of clothing.1 Animal waste from factory farms also pose a significant risk to public health. 

Communities near hog concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have higher mortality rates from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia. CAFO animals are routinely fed antibiotics, which promotes drug-resistant bacteria. 

Poultry products are frequently contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella, and have even tested positive for drugs that are banned or restricted in U.S. meat, including chloramphenicol, ketamine, phenylbutazone and nitroimidazole. 

Geological Passage of Time Marked by Changes to the Earth

A paper in the Royal Society2 proposes we may have geologically entered the age of the chicken.3 In 1669, Nicolaus Steno described two basic geological principles becoming the foundation of an idea that geological processes are uniform in frequency and magnitude.4 This led to the development of a geological time scale, separated into eras, periods and epochs. 

Today we are in the Cenozoic era, Quaternary period and Holocene epoch5 — that is until scientists announced the impact humans have had on the Earth has been so profound that a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, must be declared.6

An official expert group presented the recommendation to the International Geological Congress at Cape Town, determining the new epoch should begin in 1950, as it was during this time radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests could define an array of other signals of change.

These signals of significant impact on the Earth included plastic pollution, soot from power stations and the bones left by the global proliferation of the domesticated chicken. The Holocene era marked 12,000 years of steady climate since the last ice age. 

However, with striking acceleration of emissions and rising sea levels, experts argue this marks the end of this geological time period. Additional changes include the global mass extinction of species and the transformation of land by deforestation. 

Experts continue to argue7 whether we have officially entered the Anthropocene epoch and humans have permanently changed the planet.8 However, despite the argument of whether the name should change, the fact remains humans have made an indelible and infamous mark on the Earth, especially with the industrialization of food manufacture and supply.

Mind-Boggling Number of Chickens Tell a Disturbing Tale

With a combined mass of 23 billion, the global chicken population is nearly three times the human population of the world.9 Nearly 65 billion chickens are consumed each year, and scientists believe this signature fossil of the modern epic may be what the future remembers about humans living today.

As archaeologists sift through the remnants of these years, it might be the broiler chicken that stands out, determining who we were and how humans shaped the world. At any given time, the population of chickens is at least 10 times more than any other bird. The second largest population of birds has an estimated number of 1.5 billion. 

However, it isn't just the mind-boggling number of chickens that will speak to the history of this time, but also the animals' shape and genetic changes bred specifically for food. Carys Bennett, an honorary fellow at the University of Leicester and one of the authors of the essay, comments,10"We have changed the actual biology of the chicken."

Chickens were domesticated nearly 8,000 years ago, simultaneously in China and India. They reached North and South America in the 1500s with the Spanish explorers, but ancient Egyptians were among the first to master artificial incubation, allowing them to raise a larger number of eggs for food. 

Prior to the 1920s, poultry was raised for fun in the U.S., mostly as a hobby. Henneries became commercialized operations following World War I and saved the day for thousands of farmers in the Midwest who suffered crop failures, labor shortages and price drops. 

By the 1940s the chicken population in every American city was roughly half of the human population, leading to the current factory farms. It has become a sad state of affairs for an animal once revered by the Roman armies and affectionate enough to make a great pet. 

Factory farming has represented the chicken's final step as a protein producing commodity when as many as 20,000 to 30,000 broilers are crowded together in a windowless building. Selective breeding has made the broiler so docile even when given access to the outdoors, they prefer hanging out at a mechanized trough for the next delivery of feed. 

Today the modern broiler chicken has an average life span of 5 to 9 weeks, and has nearly five times the mass of its ancestors. A genetic mutation has been bred into the animal to make it eat insatiably in order to rapidly gain weight. 

However, this rapid weight gain makes the animal subject to numerous bone ailments and, in combination with a diet heavy in grains, the bones have a distinct chemical signature.

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