I just read a short article that really sparked my imagination on many levels. Entitled “Ancient people may have raised flightless birds ‘that can eviscerate you’”, this article claims that the ancient people of New Guinea may have been engaging in this practice as far back as 18,000 years ago. Cassowary chicks are still traded to this day in some parts of the country.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Cassowary, think of them as huge flightless birds like Ostriches or Emus. Then add about 1000 times more aggression, and a claw on each foot that can rip you wide open before you even realize their foot has left the ground. Believe me when I say that it does not pay to piss off a cassowary. If you encounter one in a dark alley you probably aren’t living your best life, or at least you won’t be in a second.
Check out the picture below. They even look more bad ass than your average ostrich. They look furiously prehistoric. And if that side eye he’s giving you doesn’t say, “Don’t eff with me,” then nothing does.
But I found this article fascinating because it means that these people were raising cassowaries a couple thousand years before humans began domesticating chickens. I’d like to meet the first person who thought raising a cassowary was a good idea. Of all the creatures in the forest you could choose to attempt to domesticate, the cassowary is not the one I’d want hanging out in my hut. Yeah, there’s a lot of meat on those bones, but I’d think you’d be sleeping with one eye open, for all the good it would do you.
The way archeologists have drawn their conclusions about the human/cassowary relationship is by studying eggshells found at archeological sites all over New Guinea. I’m amazed that they could find enough eggshell fragments that old. Not only did they do so, but they also could even tell that they were cassowary eggs in their late stages of development.
Apparently these Pleistocene people were taking these eggs from their nests in the wild either to eat the baluts (fertilized eggs with already developed embryos that are then cooked and eaten), or to allow the chicks to hatch and imprint upon the humans, to raise or trade them. Most of the egg fragments that were found did not have burn marks on them, so the latter is most likely.
Just speculating here, but there’s no way to know if they were raising these cassowaries to get their unfertilized eggs for food as one does with chickens, or if they were eating the birds themselves when they got large and feisty, or if it was some status thing. I’m sure they found use for the feathers, too. Heck, it may have been that they wanted guard cassowaries. You definitely wouldn’t have to worry about invaders if you had guard cassowaries, but how do you get them to distinguish the bad guys from the friendlies?
What are the modern New Guineans doing with them? That’s rather a sad story. According to Wikipedia, “They are often kept as pets in native villages (in New Guinea), where they are permitted to roam like barnyard fowl. Often they are kept until they become nearly grown and someone gets hurt. Mature cassowaries are placed beside native houses in cribs hardly larger than the birds themselves. Garbage and other vegetable food is fed to them, and they live for years in such enclosures; in some areas, their plumage is still as valuable as shell money. Caged birds are regularly bereft of their fresh plumes.”
No matter what the ancient human agenda was with regard to these scary, scary birds, I would love to go back in time and observe this early interaction. From a very safe distance. While wearing full body armor. I’d rather not see the modern interaction, though.
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