When chickens and brown hares first arrived in ancient Britain more than 2,000 years ago, early inhabitants did not think of them as a tasty meal but rather associated the animals with gods. The elevated statuses of bunnies and chicks may have played a role in modern Easter traditions still in practice today.
“Easter is an important British festival, yet none of its iconic elements are native to Britain. The idea that chickens and hares initially had religious associations is not surprising as cross-cultural studies have shown that exotic things and animals are often given supernatural status,” said lead researcher Professor Naomi Sykes in a statement.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Britain’s earliest brown hares and chickens – neither of which are native to the islands – were carefully buried intact without cut marks or other evidence of being butchered, suggesting the animals were not imported purely for consumption. Radiocarbon dating of bones found at several sites suggests the animals were introduced at the same time during the Iron Age, between the fifth and third century BCE.
Researchers at the Universities of Exeter, Leicester, and Oxford say that the evidence suggests neither animal was eaten until the Romans invaded the region centuries later, confirming writing in "De Bello Gallico" by Julius Caesar, which says that “the Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement and pleasure.” Dio Cassius, a Roman writer and statesman, similarly recorded an account of the British Queen Boudica releasing a live rabbit in order to divine the outcome of her battle against the Romans, calling upon the ancient goddess of battle Andraste.
“Historical accounts have suggested chickens and hares were too special to be eaten and were instead associated with deities – chickens with an Iron Age god akin to Roman Mercury, and hares with an unknown female hare goddess. The religious association of hares and chickens endured throughout the Roman period,” said Sykes.
"However archaeological evidence shows that, as their populations increased, they were increasingly eaten, and hares were even farmed as livestock. Rather than being buried as individuals, hare and chicken remains were then disposed of as food waste.”
During the Roman period, the researchers add that people ate and farmed rabbits and chickens until the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain in 410 CE, bringing economic collapse. Archaeological evidence suggests that rabbits were not eaten again until the medieval period but chicken populations increased, likely following the 6th-century order of Saint Benedict forbidding the eating of four-legged animals during Catholic fasting periods.
It wasn’t until the 13th-century that rabbits were reintroduced, this time as a food for the elite. Their populations increased until they became a common figure in the landscape in the 19th-century, which the researchers say may have led to their role in Easter.