The Origin of the Araucana Chicken is a Murky, Fascinating Mystery

araucana chicken

Aliza Eliazarov

Of all the chickens in the world, one of the weirdest is the oft-tufted South American breed known as the Araucana. Its origin continues to puzzle scientists.

Every chicken you buy, whether it’s a Cornish game hen from the UK or a black chicken from China, is a domesticated form of the red junglefowl, a bird native to south and southeast Asia that looks basically like a slightly more elaborate chicken. The junglefowl (what a name!) was domesticated at least 5,000 years ago, probably first in China, a process that involved cross-breeding the more docile birds until a new, easier-to-handle species emerged.

Today, there’s a fairly wide variety in chicken breeds (many of which we outline here). They are different sizes, have different colored skin and feathers, make different noises, lay different colored eggs. One of the oddest, in appearance and in its questionable timeline, is the Araucana. The long-held theory, according to most historians, is that this breed was probably first bred by the Mapuche people in Chile. The Araucana lays brilliant blue-turquoise eggs, and sometimes demonstrates these adorable little Civil-War-mutton-chop-like ear tufts. Here, look:

By User:Anne Cushing - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24475773

Wikimedia Commons

Haha, weird. Anyway, things get weirder, but we have to dive back in time to get a sense of why—all the way back to Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro’s journey to South America in 1532. Pizarro wasn’t the first European to visit the Pacific coast of South America; he was beaten by a few decades by Diego de Almagro. But here’s the fact that has long baffled historians: There were, according to these accounts, already chickens in South America, integral parts of the lives of the native peoples when Pizarro first arrived in Peru in 1532. Chickens made up a large part of the local Inca diet, and featured heavily in legends and rituals. Historians and anthropologists have long been confused by this—how can something introduced, at most, a couple decades before Pizarro’s arrival have had such a firm hold on a society?

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The leap from there comes from that factual confusion. The basic concept: What if the native South Americans had so thoroughly integrated chickens into their society by 1532 because they had actually had chickens for a much longer period? What if they had chickens before any European contact at all?

Historians and anthropologists, with that in mind, have taken a second look at the origin of the Araucana, a strange-enough bird that it seems to make sense that it doesn’t come from Europe, since there’s nothing much like it anywhere in Spain or Portugal. With tufted cheeks, no tail at all, and bright blue eggs, the Araucana is most common just down the coast from Peru, in Chile. The theory is that the Araucana might be a hybrid of European chickens and whatever chickens existed before European contact.

And so we come to the rub: There is a long-standing theory, still basically unproven, that islanders from Polynesia did, at some point, make contact with the Pacific coast of South America, long before the Europeans got there. The Polynesians were certainly explorers before the Europeans found the Americas, making contact with remote islands from New Zealand to Hawaii. But it’s quite a long trip to get from the South Pacific out to Peru. Still, some are convinced they did it—and the Araucana is right at the center of that theory.

In 2007, a scientific paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America stating that it was possible, even likely, that the chickens found in Chile aren’t just a fairly old, fairly isolated Chilean breed of chicken. The study examined the DNA of what’s now known as the El Arenal Chicken Bone (really!), a very old bone found in an archaeological site called El Arenal on the Pacific coast of Chile. This bone was radiocarbon-dated to somewhere between 1321 and 1407, more than a century before Pizarro wrote about the Mapuche and their chickens. Aha, say the scientists: proof! The chicken pre-dates Europeans in South America!

Even better: That 2007 paper found a specific DNA sequence in the El Arenal Chicken Bone that’s shared with samples of chickens from Polynesia. Everyone was very excited about old chickens in 2007; basically every publication with a passing interest in science wrote about it.

(The other main point of reasoning for the pre-European-chickens-in-South-America theory comes from the sweet potato, native to South America, that has been found in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific and radiocarbon-dated to 1000 CE, long before any contact with South America is supposed to have happened. Nobody really knows how the sweet potato got there.)

But in 2008, and then again in 2014, studies came out in the same journal that disputed the findings in the 2007 paper, going deeper into the specific, particular DNA of Polynesian chickens and finding that there is no real connection between the Araucana and Polynesian chickens. The 2014 paper specifically argued that there were some problems with the radiocarbon dating on the El Arenal Chicken Bone, though that has in turn been challenged by a paper, which itself has been challenged.

So what’s the status of the Polynesian-explorer theory now? It is, basically, a mess. There is not scientific consensus on the radiocarbon dating of the El Arenal Chicken Bone, there is not scientific consensus on the DNA connection between the Araucana and Polynesian chickens, and we still know basically nothing about the timeline and specifics of the various waves of discovery that resulted in the peopling of the South Pacific islands.

One thing’s for sure: The Araucana is even more mysterious than it looks.

The Origin of the Araucana Chicken is a Murky, Fascinating Mystery