Roughly 18,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in New Guinea loved nothing more than a good fried egg and a lump of roasted bird meat. And to enjoy these treats more easily, they turned to bird breeding. They bred one of the deadliest birds on the planet: the Cassowary, with its terrifyingly sharp claws.
The term “poultry farming” refers not only to the breeding of chickens but to any form of animal husbandry with domesticated birds. If you were to Google search “first farmed birds in the world,” such as I did, you will discover that the greylag goose ( Anser anser ) was the first domesticated bird in ancient Egypt that emerged about 3,000 years ago. Tomorrow, however, or maybe even later today, that same search result will say ancient humans in New Guinea were breeding deadly Cassowary birds 18,000 years ago! And the recent prehistoric bird breeding research study in the PNAS journal provides incredible evidence for this amazing discovery.
Ancient Bird Breeding Begins With The Deadly Cassowary
Imagine a giant bird not so far evolved from a raptor with the same deadly slicing claws, only this one lives alongside people and has developed a taste for human flesh. The cassowary is a large, flightless bird native to Australia and Papua New Guinea . With a 10-centimeter-long (4-inch-long) dagger-like claw on each foot, cassowaries are one of only a few species of birds that are on record as having killed humans.
According to an April 2019 article in The Guardian , the San Diego zoo ’s website described cassowaries as “the world ’s most dangerous bird” after a Florida man was “torn apart limb by limb” by one of these “almost” dinosaurs. Weighing up to 167 pounds (67 kilograms) and growing to a height of nearly six feet (1.8 meters), with their colorfully feathered heads, cassowaries have a helmet-like structure called a “casque.”
An article in Big Think explains that cassowaries have really powerful legs allowing them to run up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour). As the poor fellow in Florida found out after he fell into the cassowary’s compound, once they catch a human they kick them repeatedly, slicing off flesh and appendages in the process. Point made! This is one dangerous bird .
Fig. 7 from the PNAS study: Cassowary reproductive ecology featuring male parental care: (A) Male cassowary sitting on the forest floor; (B) Male cassowary and two juveniles; and (C) young cassowary chick. ( PNAS)
Hunter-gatherers in New Guinea Raised Cassowaries for Food
While today anyone in their right mind would stay well clear of this ferocious creature, this was not the case 18,000 years ago in New Guinea according to the new PNAS study.
Lead researcher and author Dr Kristina Douglass from Pennsylvania State University set out to explore whether early forest hunter-gatherers in New Guinea “strategically collected and reared cassowaries for food.” The paper concluded saying hunter-gatherers in the rainforests of eastern New Guinea “were breeding the cassowary 18,000 years ago.” The study, therefore, presents the earliest evidence ever of human bird breeding .
The team first examined shells from emus and ostriches to gain insights into how chicks develop inside shells. Then, they examined ancient cassowary eggshells to determine whether they had hatched or had been deliberately broken. Advanced 3D laser microscopy was applied to 1,000 eggshell fragments from two ancient rock shelters in New Guinea, on surrounding islands, and in northern Australia . Cassowaries are a native bird species in all these locations.
The results of the study show most eggs were “harvested at later stages of development.” This mean it is most likely that hunter-gatherers preferred consuming eggs “with fully formed embryos” according to the new study.
The team also discovered “burn marks” on some eggshells. These are thought to indicate a preference for early-stage eggs that contained “primarily liquid contents (yolk and albumin) that were cooked intact over an open fire or in an earth oven.”
A giant cassowary closeup. ( Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock)
From The Earliest Egg Collectors To The First Bird Breeders
How can we be sure the hunter gatherers were not simply raiding cassowary nests and stealing their eggs, another human tradition that is thousands of years old? While some eggs were found to have been cracked early, and others had been left to age, another group were found to have hatched naturally, without human intervention. The new paper suggests hunter-gatherers allowed these eggs hatch “in order to rear cassowaries.”
Cassowaries happen to be particularly meaty, therefore, they are protein and nutrient packed birds. Thus, it is doubtful that after a bird had reached the end of its egg production life it was released into the wild. More likely they were eaten by the people who raised them.
What’s more, the paper explains that cassowary chicks “readily imprint on humans when raised from birth.” This means that New Guinea’s Cassowary bird breeders were pretty much safe from attack or injury.
Top image: The southern cassowary. Source: mountaintreks / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie.