Ok guys, I have a question, what do you think is the first bird humans farmed?
The obvious answers seem like chickens, geese, ducks the things we still farm today.
We have indications we farmed geese as far back as 7000 years and chickens 7400. Our farming of pigeons goes back 10,000 years!
But recent evidence
indicates there's another bird we farmed 18,000 years ago: the cassowary
WTF is a Cassowary
You might not even know what a cassowary is, it doesn't get nearly as much attention as its cousins the emu and ostrich.
As you can guess based on that it is a large flightless bird. Not as big as their ostrich cousins, yet not small either, the females of the largest species have been known to reach 6.5 feet in height and weighing 130 lbs. They can run 50 km/h 30 mph and they can jump nearly 5 ft into the air.
Female cassowaries have all the power, they choose who they mate with (being 25% larger helps with that) and when they lay their eggs it's the males that hatch and raise the young. They primarily eat fruit, fungi, insects and small critters. And they've been known to live 40-50 years. Also cassowary's don't have tongues
They also make weird fucking noises
Cassowaries communicate with each other through a range of hissing, rumbling, coughing and booming noises. The main purposes of these noises are (probably) to: attract and court a mate during the breeding season; warn other Cassowaries of their presence; and assist communication between fathers and chicks. (Like most young birds, Cassowary chicks 'chirp' or 'whistle' to communicate with their parents).
The low-frequency, booming calls of the Southern Cassowary are at the bottom end of human hearing. At 32 Hertz, they are the lowest known vocalizations of all birds and have been described as 'strange' and 'unsettling' by people who have heard them. These low-frequency sounds (known as 'infrasound') are thought to travel over long distances, even through dense rainforest foliage. Elephants and emus also communicate via infrasound.
Native to New Guinea, Aru Islands and Australia there are three living species of cassowaries. One look at this bird and you can't help but think of a dinosaur
If you have heard of cassowaries it's probably because of their reputation as vicious murder birds filled to the brim with malice. In 1958 Ernest Thomas Gilliard wrote in his book "Living Birds of the World"
The inner or second of the three toes is fitted with a long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. There are many records of natives being killed by this bird
And he's not kidding, here's a picture of a cassowary foot. All scales and 5 inch claws, a cassowary can and will fuck you up if it feels like it. But despite this fearsome reputation actual recorded attacks are not that high
In 2003, we had
historical records of 221 cassowary attacks, with 150 being against humans.
75% of these had been from cassowaries that had been fed by people, 71% of the time the bird had chased or charged the victim, and 15% of the time they kicked. Of the attacks, 73% involved the birds expecting or snatching food, 5% involved defending their natural food sources, 15% involved defending themselves from attack, and 7% involved defending their chicks or eggs. Only one human death was reported among those 150 attacks
The first documented human death caused by a cassowary was on April 6, 1926. In Australia, 16-year-old Phillip McClean and his brother, age 13, came across a cassowary on their property and decided to try to kill it by striking it with clubs. The bird kicked the younger boy, who fell and ran away as his older brother struck the bird. The older McClean then tripped and fell to the ground. While he was on the ground, the cassowary kicked him in the neck, opening a 1.25-centimetre (1⁄2 in) wound that may have severed his jugular vein. The boy died of his injuries shortly thereafter
Cassowary strikes to the abdomen are among the rarest of all, but in one case, a dog was kicked in the belly in 1995. The blow left no puncture, but severe bruising occurred. The dog later died from an apparent intestinal rupture.
Another human death due to a cassowary was recorded in Florida on April 12, 2019. The bird's owner, a 75-year-old man who had raised the animal, was apparently clawed to death after he fell to the ground.
So like most animals, the cassowary is commonly misunderstood and its vicious reputation isn't really warranted. Nearly all recorded attacks were incited by humans, to do with food or to do with defending their young. Most all animals will react similarly in similar circumstances.
But attacks do happen and they can be lethal, this is not a bird you want to fuck with, yet 18,000 years ago we farmed these beautiful bastards
Today in New Guinea, cassowaries are still raised, so it's not unheard of, this recent study just might indicate this practice having gone on far longer than we realized and it all was thanks to the ancient fragments of shells.
Scientists from Pennsylvania State University first noticed that eggs earlier in development were cooked in their shells and eggs further along were not, potentially indicating these eggs were being kept for the purpose of hatching.
The egg remains were discovered during excavations of two rock shelters, known as Yuku and Kiowa, on New Guinea where prehistoric humans are known to have lived. The sites offer an insight into these ancient people's diet, with the remains of bats, marsupials and birds found.
Amongst these were the remains of eggshells from cassowaries, most likely the dwarf cassowary on the basis of bone fragments found alongside them.
Like many other birds, newly hatched cassowaries can imprint on people, so chicks hatched and raised by people will be friendlier and maybe even grow attached to their adoptive parents.
The exact purpose of raising the chicks is unclear, but as modern New Guineans use cassowaries for food, traditional ceremonies and for trade, it is possible their ancestors could have been doing something similar.
This find is pretty amazing, pushing back our estimates of poultry farming by almost 10,000 years. But this new milestone may not hold this place for long, as recent evidence may indicate that Neanderthals and humans harvested rock doves in Gibraltar going back as far as 68,000 years
Naturally this is a
burgeoning study and nothing can ever be said definitively when it comes to
human history especially when it goes that far back. But we can look to some of
the tribes in New Guinea that still have a close relationship with the cassowary
It's really difficult to find much information on what exactly that relationship looks like though. Made all the more complicated by the sheer number and diversity of the tribes of new guinea, this is a country which has 1083 languages, with only 12 that overlap.
Papua New Guinea is a cultural and biological marvel. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain much of the original species and distinct tribes have managed to survive all these years. While occupying less than .5% of the world's land, it comprises 10% of its species. Its landscape incorporates most every biome you can think of from lush jungle valleys to alpine peaks, going from its coral studded sea level to the 4000 meter/13,000 ft peaks of its greatest mountains. And yet despite its small size, so much of it is still unexplored, from 1998 to 2008 alone, 1060 new species were identified. And its estimated that more than half of the island's amphibians have yet to be documented. And almost more miraculous, 95% of the land still belongs to its indigenous tribes
It's also these same tribes that are leading conservation efforts and it's pretty amazing the way they are working to preserve their heritage, the land and its species. From a 2015 Australian Geographic article, these conservation efforts had only been going on for 5 years by that point and already they were seeing native flora and fauna begin to bounce back.
Among the vast fauna of papua new guinea, are all three species of cassowary.
I was curious how they managed to raise such naturally solitary and territorial birds, but finding anything about the modern practice was surprisingly tricky. But what I did find was some pretty amazing pictures from the mid to late 1900s. Edwin Cook was an American anthropologist that lived between 1932-1984. Cook devoted his career to anthropological work, focusing on kinship and social structure of the Manga tribe in Papua New Guinea and spent years with these tribes. The majority of images document the social life and customs of the Kwiop and other Narak-speaking people, mainly in the Western Highlands Province.
It was also through these pictures that I found some of his 1960s work
Cassowaries occupy an unusual position. They are not bred in captivity and the Manga claim that they are unable to distinguish male from female birds. The only way to obtain one is by capturing it alive in the bush as a chick or by purchasing it from someone who has done so. When sold as a chick, the price of a cassowary is second only to the price of a bride, though of course much less.
After the chick is obtained, it is turned over to a woman who cares for it, training it to follow her about. When the bird begins to mature and its plumage changes from a dusty fawn color to the adult black, a pen is built and the bird is incarcerated for the rest of its life. ln its adult form, the feeding responsibility devolves upon the man who is its owner. Cassowaries are only rarely killed and eaten. Their plumage is used in warfare headdresses and shield decorations.
They were then outfitted in male apparel and heavily decorated with plumes and shells (Plate 27). When these preparations had been completed, the old sorcerer spoke to the ancestors, recounting the past history of conflicts with their enemies and seeking their continued assistance in future encounters - Edwin Cook
This led me to a blog ran by an indigenous woman, Joycelin Leahy
She had a post about cassowaries specifically and had this to say
Cassowaries are very important to the native people of New Guinea both economically and ritually. Cassowaries have been traded for pigs and even as bride price for a wife and compensation payment especially in the highlands provinces .
Some tribes hunt them for their meat which is considered a delicacy. They use the feathers to decorate headdresses, and the feather quills for earrings. The sharp claws are often placed at the tips of arrows, while the strong leg bones are used as daggers.
For many native people, cassowaries are full of legends and mystical powers. Some tribes believe that cassowaries are reincarnations of female ancestors, while others believe that the cassowary is the primal mother. These tribes do not hunt or deal in trade with cassowaries.
Bone daggers were once widespread in New Guinea. Their purpose was both symbolic and utilitarian; they functioned as objects of artistic expression with the primary function of stabbing and killing people at close quarters. Most daggers were shaped from the tibiotarsus of cassowaries
She also had a New Guinean legend about how the cassowary become a flightless bird:
How the Cassowary became a Flightless Bird – A Legend from the Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.
Long ago, the cassowary was a big bird with a long neck, large legs and big wings which enabled it to fly like all other birds of the forest.
At that time, the cassowary and the hornbill were best friends, and spent most of their time flying around together, feeding on the delicious fruits at the top of the trees.
They were very close friends, but as time passed, the hornbill became increasingly jealous of the cassowary, who with his long neck could stretch and reach the best of the fruit pickings. The poor hornbill had to be content with leftovers.
While the hornbill hid his jealousy, he began to plan a trick to punish the cassowary.
One day the hornbill broke two dried sticks off a tree branch, placed them beneath each wing, under its feathers, and then flew off meet the cassowary.
"I have an idea", the hornbill said to the cassowary.
"After we have fed on the fruit and are fully satisfied, let us do some stylish tricks in the air to see who is more brave and skilled."
"Sure", the cassowary said – liking the idea.
"But", added the hornbill, "each of us must break his wings to see how far he can fly with broken wings."
The cassowary had no objection to this 'idea', so when they had eaten enough fruit, they were ready for the game. The hornbill volunteered to go first.
Pretending to break his two wings, he snapped the two dry sticks beneath his wings and then flew away. He performed some stylish tricks in the air and then flew to a nearby tree to perch. The hornbill then called the cassowary to try to outwit his tricks.
The cassowary, ignoring the pain he had to suffer, broke his wings, one by one. Then he stretched the wings to fly away but he only crashed to the ground. He could not lift his weight with broken wings.
The hornbill broke into laughter at the top of his voice he said, "you have always had the most and the best of the fruit, but now you can stay on the ground and feed on my waste while I enjoy the best of the forest."
From that day until today, the cassowary has been a bird of the ground, with wings that could not fly.
While in some areas of new guinea cassowary are farmed and hunted, they aren't as plentiful everywhere. In the Queensland, Kofron and Chapman areas of Australia, the southern cassowary is considered endangered. Cassowaries depend greatly on rainforest environments and recent studies indicate that only 20-25% of the habitat cassowaries once inhabited remains.
Habitat loss is the biggest threat to the cassowary population. Adult cassowaries have no natural predators, but that doesn't mean that don't have unnatural predators. A study was done on the remains of 140 cassowaries and their causes of death break down as this:
- 55% motor vehicle strikes
- 18% dog attacks
- The remaining deaths were hunting, entanglement In wire, removal of cassowaries that attacked humans
- Only 12% of the deceased cassowaries examined were determined to have died of natural causes
Signs encouraging people to not speed in cassowary habitats can be seen in Australia (there is a slogan that says you should be cass-o-wary while driving), but one of the biggest ways we can protect cassowaries, is not to feed them! People have been known to feed the birds which makes them more inclined to investigate when people are nearby. And well, we already know you should never get between a cassowary and its food.
Other threats include feral pigs. In 1777 Captain James Cook released a breeding pair of pigs into the wild of Australia and since then the population has exploded. Much like any other animal introduced to an environment it's not native to, these feral pigs rain havoc wherever they go. Pigs can and will eat most anything, so roaming the countryside they devour and tear up local fauna, destroying habitats with the force of a wild fire, before moving on to the next area. And it's not just the local wildlife impacted by this
Areas trampled of its natural fauna become exposed and has led to water erosion which can change the landscape forever and puts anything near it at risk of floods and mudslides. They have also been known to ravage farmlands. Since 1987 Australia has considered feral pigs to be biggest mammalian pest to Australia's agriculture.
When it comes to threatening cassowaries, feral pigs destroy their habitats but not just that, since cassowary nests are little more than ruts in the rainforest floor, they become a feast for passing pigs whether it be eggs or chicks hanging around the nest. Pigs also provide intense competition for food sources, cassowaries primary diet being fruit, and low hanging fruit most important for feeding their chicks. And efforts to deal with the pig situation also cause issues as hunters bring dogs with them to track the feral pigs, and these dogs have been known to take out any cassowary chicks they come across.
And while at first you might think that crocodiles are helping solve the issue by snapping up pigs whenever they can, it has caused the crocodile population to boom. Wherever these pigs proliferate has effectively turned the ecosystems upside down
Captivity and Conservation
But there are efforts to combat that, though they have their challenges
One effort is repopulation and raising awareness
Cassowaries don't do great in captivity. Their natural habitat of lush jungles is hard to reproduce in enclosures and the birds by nature are solitary and territorial thus making them aggressive. They don't cohabitate well with other animals and not even each other.
In the wild, a female will select a mate, they will do the deed and he will hang around at a distance waiting to see if she lays eggs, and he has to keep a distance or she will violently put him in his place. Once she lays all the eggs in the nest the male prepared, she will then wander off. The male then sits on the eggs for 50 days, abandoning the nest for even a short period of time puts the eggs at risk to creatures of all kinds from snakes to pigs, though cassowaries can frequently scare these creatures off if they are caught, but if another female comes across the eggs, she will pick them up in her beak and smash them one at a time, while the male is helpless to do anything, as the females are bigger and more dangerous.
If the eggs do manage to hatch, the dad cares for them for a period of nine months after which they are able to go out on their own. The chicks are raised in the female's territory, which ranges is size but is estimated to be around 3000 acres. The female will not be present for their rearing and will often wander off to mate with another male in another part of her territory.
Cassowaries don't mate for life, females usually having several partners, though it's not uncommon for a female to return to a male she finds favorable. This can be dangerous though, if that male is still rearing young. Like many animals, female cassowaries will kill chicks for an opportunity to mate, even her own.
So you can imagine why keeping multiple cassowaries in the same enclosure is a bad idea and also why it's so difficult to get them to mate in captivity
Some reserves have found ways around this, but it involves an elaborate process of carefully identifying when both animals are ready to mate, introducing them with barriers between them to see if they're favorable. They are penned together for the mating process. The female will lay an egg every couple of days and the keepers will swap the eggs out with emu eggs that have been blown out, refilled with water and painted until the final egg is laid (3-5 eggs is common). This is to protect the eggs until it's time for the male to incubate them
The real eggs are put back and the nest is enclosed with a veiled barrier so the male can't see the female outside and vice versa. When the eggs are a couple days from hatching the keepers will retrieve them and hatch them in an incubator.
The reserve I was reading about said that their male was a lousy dad and any time he was left to hatch the eggs on his own, he had ended up pecking and injuring some of the chicks, it also makes it more difficult to provide care for the birds, as the male will take any proximity as a threat. The reserve wants to keep a close eye on the birds during their development to ensure they're healthy and growing as expected, so taking them away right before hatching seems to be the least stressful solution for all parties. Also chicks that are hand raised are more easily trained and less aggressive with their human keepers.
Despite all this trouble 26 different reserves and zoos have joined in the study and breeding of the cassowary. They have an elaborate breeding program designed to ensure as much genetic diversity as possible, and use their captive birds to learn more about them and educate the public.
The other way of helping the cassowaries is expanding their habitats
It's clear that the indigenous people of new guinea and Australia know some things we don't when it comes to the cassowary and they have been greatly involved in raising awareness and conservation efforts for the flightless bird. Many tribes feature the cassowary as a central part of their cultures and belief systems. Cassowary bones and feathers are common in traditional cultural adornments and many of their traditional practices have connections to the cassowary, with dances and songs dedicated to the birds.
The indigenous people recognized early on the importance of the cassowary, how it was vital for the survival of the rainforest and the people that lived there. The cassowary is responsible for spreading the seeds of more than 200 species of fruit bearing plants in the rainforest. The birds live predominantly on these fruits and as they move through the jungles they leave behind their droppings which grow into new trees. The natives also relied on these trees as a major food source and thus garnered a great respect for the bird.
A total random fun aside. A cassowary conservation group found that if they retrieved the droppings and just put them in a flower pot, before long trees would begin to sprout. Once the sapling was sturdy enough the conservation group would replant it in the cassowary's territory. Basically the cassowaries were helping reforest their habitats. These are often called cassowary trees
There are dozens of tribes that still live in the areas that the southern cassowary does and each has their own words
Here's what Whitney Rassip of the Djiru tribe had to say
Whitney Rassip – Djiru "Growing up I was told that Gunduy (Cassowary) is very important to us rainforest people, my father, and grandfather's family. But I didn't experience that feeling until I started learning my country, now I realise, the connection and role of Gunduy in the rainforest. Every time I see a Gunduy I know that my culture is still alive, which is why I try to do as much as I can to ensure its survival, now and into the future."
The Djiru people is one of the many tribes involved in this fight. Like many indigenous tribes around the world the Djiru suffered greatly at the hands of colonizers, losing their lands, culture, language and lives in the bloody expansion that swept across Australia.
But they're regaining ground, literally. In September 2011, after a long fight the Djiru people were finally recognized as the native title holders of their traditional lands in the Mission Beach area of Australia.
The state returned 8 parcels of land to the tribe. The two largest parcels support the gunduy and they work with the local community to raise awareness and to continue to reclaim their history and culture, and part of that is tied deeply into the rainforest and its inhabitants.
"We must protect and enhance remaining coastal rainforest to ensure access for Djiru people to reconnect and maintain sea country culture. Not only for us, the people, but as well for animals that access the ocean from the rainforest, for example the Gunduy."
"The cassowary is part of us. We look upon the cassowary as part of our tribe, part of us; we have that interaction with them. It's been with us for thousands of years," said Djiru Elder John Andy.
They raise money and awareness by hosting art exhibits and a cassowary festival. Indigenous artists display their work and offer opportunities for people to learn about their culture and the rainforest which is so often taken for granted.
If you would like to contribute to the fight to help the cassowary and the indigenous people of northern Australia to help reclaim the rainforests please check out the links below
Rainforest rescue is one of the many programs working to restore rainforests and one of their primary causes is for the cassowary https://www.rainforestrescue.org.au/save-the-cassowary/
The Girringun Aborigional Corporation is a collective with representatives from nine of the north-queensland indigenous groups including the djiru https://donorbox.org/girringun-land-sea-culture-arts-campaign
There's still hope for the southern cassowary, but this is something that people need to be aware of. Loss of the southern cassowary could cause a collapse of Australia's remaining rainforests as vegetation loses its primary method of seed dispersal. And with the rainforest we lose countless other fauna and flora, and for the Djiru and Australia's other rainforest people, they lose a huge part of their heritage
We've managed to have a relationship with this bird for nearly 20,000 years and not always a good one and most of that is our fault. So let's not fuck this up any more than we already have