Future Archaeologists Will Remember Us by the Chicken Bones We Left Behind

The modern chicken has been engineered to eat constantly — so that we, in turn, can eat chicken constantly. David Tadevosian/Shutterstock

And they shall know us by the trail of our chicken bones.

At least, that's the idea behind a study published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In it, researchers contend that the sheer number of broiler chickens on this planet — there are about 23 billion of them alive at any given time — will be the most overwhelmingly identifiable legacy of this modern age.

Indeed, as the most numerous land-based vertebrate on the planet, it seems only natural that we should name this entire epoch The Age of Chicken.

When you've got one species plowing through 66 billion chickens every year, you've got to keep them coming. Nuggets. Thighs. Burgers. Wings.

And double everything for the Super Bowl.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture had to revise its guidelines in September, allowing companies to slaughter 175 birds per minute — up from the previous allowance of 140.

The thing about chicken is you'd be playing with your life if you ate the bones. So, as the researchers suggest, they pile up in landfills. Imagine Himalayan heaps of bones, all over time, becoming fossils.

Someday, when humans vacate this planet — willingly or not — the dominant life form that inherits it will doubtless dig up those fossils.

And future archaeologists will declare, "Ahhh.. yes. The chicken bone people."

If there was a dawn of the chicken age, it was probably around the time of a 1948 documentary called "The Chicken of Tomorrow."

A cartoon rendering of a chicken
In the late 1940s, the food industry promised cheap, nourishing chicken for all. Memo Angeles/Shutterstock

The program, produced by Texaco, sought to educate the public on "how scientific agriculture changes the life and taste of the chicken." It was an enthusiastic call for Americans to take up chicken wings and bite into the future. Cheap, plentiful, factory-farmed chickens could ensure no one ever went hungry again. That kind of chicken boosterism proved a powerful sell to a generation still reeling from post-war depression.

Once considered a luxury food, chicken found its way to the common table. As former president Herbert Hoover once promised in his election campaign, there was a "chicken in every pot."

Now, how to fill the bellies of those chicken-crazed masses. That's where scientists really got cooking. Over the next 70 years or so, the chicken became less a living thing and more product, as researchers found ways to maximize the meatiness.

As a result, the modern broiler chicken has been rendered incapable of living in the wild. Broilers spend their entire lives moving very little — while always-on artificial daylight tricks them into eating constantly. Even their genes have been altered to overclock their metabolism. They want to eat all the time.

As a result, they're finger-licking ready by the time they're 5 weeks old.

A 30-day year-old broiler chicken.
At just 30 days old, the ungainly looking broiler chicken is just about ready to be processed. Mriya Wildlife/Shutterstock

This isn't the chicken your great grandmother had pecking around the back of her house. More like an entirely distinct, human-engineered product for our palates.

"Modern broiler chickens are morphologically, genetically and isotopically distinct from domestic chickens prior to the mid-twentieth century," researchers note in the study. "The global range of modern broilers and biomass dominance over all other bird species is a product of human intervention."

Or, as Annaliese Griffin writes in Quartzy, "The chickens we eat now, particularly in the U.S., are nearly as much an industrial product as plastic and concrete."

And as such, those scarcely formed chicken bones may take their place alongside plastic, as the telltale symbols of a civilization that couldn't stop licking its fingers.