The southern cassowary is often called the world’s most dangerous bird.
Although shy and secretive in the forests of his native New Guinea and northern Australia, he can be aggressive in captivity. In 2019, kicking from a captive cassowary fatally injured a Florida man. They don’t appreciate attempts to chase them either: in 1926, a cassowary attacked by an Australian teenager kicked him in the neck with his 4-inch velociraptor-shaped talons, slitting his throat.
Not a bird that it is advisable to spend too much time with, in other words. But as early as 18,000 years ago, the people of New Guinea may have raised cassowary chicks to adulthood – potentially the first known example of men managing avian reproduction.
“That’s thousands of years before the domestication of the chicken,” said Kristina Douglass, archaeologist at Penn State University and lead author of the study, which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Our new paper today in @PNASNews: Upper Pleistocene / Lower Holocene sites in the montane forests of New Guinea report earliest records of cassowary hunting and egg harvesting https://t.co/M6DaRsc281 pic.twitter.com/qOIYAYLzUa
– Kristina Douglass (@kgdouglass) September 27, 2021
The first men arrived in New Guinea at least 42,000 years ago. These settlers found rainforests covered with irritable large cassowaries with razor feet – and finally figured out how to use them. During rock shelter excavations in the eastern highlands of the island, Susan Bulmer, a New Zealand archaeologist, collected artifacts and bird remains that ended up at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Papua. New Guinea. Among these remains were 1,019 cassowary eggshell fragments, probably torn from wild cassowary nests.
What did the inhabitants of the rock shelters do with the eggs? Douglass and his colleagues scanned the shells with three-dimensional laser microscopes. Using statistical modeling, comparisons to modern ostrich eggs, and careful examination of shell microstructures, they were able to determine the distance each egg traveled before hatching.
Some eggs – early in their development – exhibited scorching patterns, suggesting they had been cooked. But a large number of the fragments – especially those from around 11,000 to 9,000 years ago – were from almost fully developed eggs. And while people may have eaten the embryos, said Douglass, “there is a great possibility that people will hatch these eggs and raise cassowary chicks.”
To support this claim, she points to certain indigenous groups on the island who regard cassowary meat and feathers as ritual and commercial goods. They still raise cassowary chicks from eggs collected from wild nests. Newborns print easily on humans and are relatively manageable. (It is not until they reach adulthood that the danger begins.)
Although collecting eggs and raising hatchlings is a first step in domestication, cassowaries – quite intractable, like birds – are unlikely to have ever been fully bred like chickens, which were domesticated 8,000 years ago. But if New Guinea’s original inhabitants raised cassowaries by hand, they would have been among the first known humans to systematically tame birds, the team concluded.
“These findings could drastically alter the known chronologies and geographies of domestication which tend to be the most widely understood and taught,” said Megan Hicks, an archaeologist at Hunter College New York who was not involved in the study. . “Where mammals are the best known early cases (bezoar dogs and ibex), we now know that we need to pay more attention to human interactions with avian species. “
Eggshells carry another interesting implication. Based on the patterns in the eggs, the team suggests that people deliberately harvested the eggs in a narrow window of days late in the incubation period. It’s not easy: Cassowary nests are often quite difficult to find and guarded by ruthless males, and the eggs have an incubation period of around 50 days.
In order to fetch cassowary eggs at a constant level of development – whether to eat them or hatch them – ancient New Guineans had to know precisely when and where cassowaries were nesting, Douglass said. This precision implies sophisticated knowledge – even management – of cassowary movements.
“This suggests that the people who are in the feeding communities have this very intimate knowledge of the environment and can thus shape it in ways we never imagined,” said Douglass.
April M. Beisaw, president of anthropology at Vassar College, who was not involved in the study, said it was “a great example of how the smaller and larger remains fragile elements of the past may provide evidence of important cultural practices ”.
“The techniques described can be used in other places to further develop our understanding of the importance of birds to humans, long before the domestication of chickens,” she added.
Don’t try to hatch cassowaries at home if you know what’s right for you.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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