Volume 101 1992 > Volume 101, No. 4 > Cassowaries, chickens and change: animal domestication by Kubo of Papua New Guinea, by Peter D. Dwyer and Monica Minnegal, p 373-386
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Kubo are a small population of hunter-horticulturists living in the interior lowlands of the Western Province, Papua New Guinea (see Fig. 1). Between 1988 and 1991 some groups of Kubo people shifted from failure to success in attempts to maintain chickens (Gallus gallus) and increased the rate of success when rearing wild-caught cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius). Both these examples of change may be classed as “domestication”, where this term is broadly (perhaps, generously) interpreted (e.g., Baldwin 1990; Clutton-Brock 1992; Yen 1991). However, the two examples contrast in terms of underlying variables — environmental in one case, social in the other — that facilitated or motivated change. In combination, they illustrate the varied contexts and processes that may underly the evolution of ostensible subsistence patterns (cf. Boyd 1985). With specific reference to Kubo, chickens and cassowaries, these contexts and processes are the focus of this paper. We shall begin with necessary background concerning the people and the animals they kept in 1986-7.


The Kubo population comprises about 450 people living as widely dispersed communities in an area north of Nomad in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea (Fig. 1; Dwyer, Minnegal and Woodyard n.d.). In the north-west, Kubo territory extends west of the Strickland River and abuts the territory of Konai speakers. Here, there is much interaction between members of different language groups, and communities tend to be mixed.

The Kubo language is included within the Bosavi language family and treated by Shaw (1986) as a dialect of Samo. The cultural affinities of the people are with the Strickland-Bosavi complex discussed by Knauft (1985). Among people north of the Boye River, sustained and influential contact with the wider world did not occur until the early-to-mid-1980s.

Two Christian missions maintain an active presence within the territory of Kubo people: the Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea (ECPNG) and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA). The ECPNG established missions among neighbouring language groups (Bedamini and Samo) in the 1960s and 1970s (Shaw 1990). Suabi mission station, within Kubo territory, was established in 1984; a Government medical aid post was opened in 1985

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Figure 1. Map of Kubo territory and surrounding areas, showing settlements mentioned in the text. Large circles mark settlements occupied in both 1986-7 and 1991; small circles mark settlements occupied in 1986-7 but not in 1991; triangles mark settlements occupied in 1991 but not in 1986-7. Capitalised names indicate settlements recognised by Government authorities in 1991.
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and a primary school in 1988. Dahamo mission station, within Konai territory, was established in 1987 and a primary school opened there in 1990. There are airstrips at both mission stations. The SDA Church was well established among southern Kubo, at Destabi, near Nomad, probably by 1980, and extended to Suabi in 1985. In 1986-7 most people asserted alignment with one or other of these churches. To a large extent, they had supplemented a customary belief system with ideas from one or other of the Christian churches; they had neither replaced the former with the latter nor blended the two. SDA adherants, however, committed themselves to the biblical injunctions concerning animal foods as they understood these to be presented in the biblical book of Leviticus.

Kubo subsistence is based on a mix of procurement systems. Carbohydrate needs are met primarily from bananas grown in small gardens and sago flour processed from wild and planted Metroxylon palms. Other garden crops include taro, yams, sweet potato, sugar-cane, lowland and highland pitpits and a few greens. Tree crops, both planted and wild, and including fruit pandanus (P. conoideus), okari (Terminalia), galip (Canarium) and tulip (Gnetum gnemon) are at least seasonally important and fern fronds, fungi and some wild yams are gathered. At Gwaimasi, and at other communities affiliated with ECPNG, the diet includes much animal protein obtained, using a range of strategies, from crustaceans, insects, fish, frogs, reptiles (including large turtles), birds (including cassowaries) and mammals. For SDA affiliates, however, catfish and pork, the major sources of protein available to Kubo, are prohibited, as are many minor sources of animal protein (e.g., turtles and most marsupial mammals). Birds are acceptable and cassowaries, though not classed within the life form “Bird” (Siu), emerge as the largest animal species available as food.

Kubo people are very mobile both within and between local subsistence zones and, at least until very recently, the membership and location of communities changed frequently.

From August 1986 to November 1987, and in October and November 1991, we lived with Kubo people. Our primary base was the village of Gwaimasi on the west bank of the Strickland River. We visited most extant Kubo communities north of the Boye River and the Konai communities of Nanega, in 1986, and Dahamo, in 1991. Some small settlements visited in the earlier period (Sosoibi, Gugwuasu and Aumo Hafi) had been abandoned by 1991, and new settlements established (Swiobi and Toio Hafi). In 1986-7 the resident population at Gwaimasi averaged 25 people in any month and, in 1991, was 34 people. Populations at the mission stations of Suabi and Dahamo numbered 100 or more, though people based here often resided at - 376 gardens or sago-processing sites as much as a day's walk away. Elsewhere, we have described Kubo subsistence and social life with particular emphasis on hunting and connections between ecology and community dynamics (Dwyer and Minnegal 1988-9, 1990, 1991, in press a and b). These papers expand on matters discussed above.


In 1986-7 pigs and dogs were the primary domestic animals kept by Kubo people. Piglets, born to wild or domestic sows but fathered by wild boars, were captured when very young, placed in the care of a particular woman, carried in string bags, allowed to forage under the close supervision of their carers (usually in places of the carer's choosing) and provided with fodder (often cooked bananas or the pith of sago palms) at least twice a day. At an age of about 18 months, pigs were usually released into forest, particularly swamp forest, to forage independently; they were, however, regularly visited by their carer and sometimes sago palms were felled to provide long-term access to fodder at fixed locations. The bond between pigs and carers was exceptionally strong and it was difficult to transfer care of a pig from one person to another. Carers of pigs were not always owners and there were instances of agistment where a woman, appointed as carer, resided at a community other than that of the owner of the animal. The ratio of domestic pigs to people was usually less than 0.5 and the animals served social needs more than nutritional needs.

Dogs were nearly as abundant as people and were important to some strategies of hunting. In September 1987, 15 of the 19 dogs at Gwaimasi died of symptoms that we retrospectively diagnosed as distemper (Dwyer and Minnegal 1991). Two of the remaining four dogs were seriously incapacitated. The epidemic was widespread, reaching Gwaimasi from the south-east, with very high mortality at Suabi, and moving to the north-west. Indeed, Morren (1989:134) reported that, by May 1989, “a substantial proportion of the domestic dog stock in the Miyanmin area”, nearly 150 km north-west of Gwaimasi, had been killed “by a contagious disease that produces paralysis and death”; this may have been an outcome of the same epidemic. Wild dogs were not present within or near Kubo territory.

Young Kubo children sometimes kept small turtles, chicks of birds such as pigeons and well-developed pouch young of bandicoots. The turtles were usually eaten within a few days and the immature birds and bandicoots died and were discarded. In 1986-7 one woman at Gwaimasi kept a young fruit bat (Pteropus sp.) as a pet for about four months and, in 1991, two boys cared for a large hornbill chick (Aceros plicatus) until it was killed by a dog. The tail - 377 feathers of hornbills are an essential part of the Kubo dance costume and utilitarian motives may have underlain the considerable effort needed to gather food for the bird. The first cat to live at Gwaimasi was purchased from Suabi in 1987; it did not live to breed. In 1991 there were two cats and the species was now named bou so (European dog).


In 1986-7 there were no chickens at the Kubo communities of Suabi, Aumo Hafi, Gugwuasu, Sosoibi or Gwaimasi or at the Konai community of Nanega. People told us that attempts to raise chickens had failed because the birds were killed by dogs.

In 1991 there were small flocks of free-ranging chickens at the mission stations of Dahamo and Suabi. At Suabi, flocks usually comprised eight to 12 birds, with approximately equal numbers of males and females. Facilities for holding broody hens and chicks were present at some houses. There appeared to be little interest in harvesting eggs from chickens; rather, the intention was that the animals themselves would sometimes be eaten. The only instances known to us were one occasion when chickens were killed and eaten after being stolen from their owner, and another when a man's chickens were killed by people who held a grievance against him.

At both Swiobi and Gwaimasi, in 1991, there was one mature rooster, the former strongly attached to (and attempting copulation with) pigs, the latter strongly attached to people. In addition, one or more chicks were kept at Toio Hafi and, at Gwaimasi, there was a young pullet and at least six chicks ranging from a few weeks to a few months in age. The Gwaimasi chickens had originated, by purchase and as agisted animals, from both Dahamo and Suabi. The negotiated price of the Gwaimasi rooster had been three kina but the payment was delayed and contingent upon the rooster's “satisfactory” performance, presumably either as a sire or as a meal.

Each of the young Gwaimasi chickens was in the individual care of a woman. They were carried in string bags that were laced closed; they were released to forage in close proximity to, and under careful observation by, their carers; and they were hand-fed at intervals through the day on items gathered by their carers or the carers' spouses. Quite large sections of earthen termite nests were collected from the forest and portions of these broken open so that the chickens could obtain the insects. These birds were almost never apart from their carers; they were, in effect, tamed. Indeed, the woman who cared for the pullet carried this animal with her when she travelled from Gwaimasi to Suabi to carry for us and visit relatives — a journey of two days, in each direction, by dugout and foot.

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At Gwaimasi, therefore, rearing of chickens, especially through the early months of their life, required substantial input of time and effort from carers. Full-grown chickens were treated differently. The rooster was in the care of a married couple; it ranged freely within the village area when they were present and followed, or attempted to follow, them when they departed. Sometimes it accompanied them to nearby gardens. At this age the bird usually foraged for itself, being rarely fed by its carers.

In 1986-7, at Gwaimasi there were at least five attempts in 15 months to raise cassowaries. The animals were caught as small chicks by women or men. They were initially cared for by women who carried them in string bags and hand-fed them. If they reached a height of about 30 cm they were transferred to a cage, built off the ground and attached to, or suspended from, the house of the carer. Larger cassowaries might be kept in a cage built on the ground and a husband might assist his wife in caring for the animal. At no time did we see a young cassowary wandering free within the village domain. This contrasts with reports from elsewhere in Papua New Guinea (e.g., Clarke 1971:88-9; Sorenson 1976:57) and, again, is attributable to the presence of many dogs in Kubo communities.

None of these five attempts was successful. The birds died, or escaped from their string bags or were killed by dogs. At Gwaimasi, only one captive cassowary grew sufficiently large that it was moved to a cage built on the ground, beneath a house. This bird had been in captivity for more than four months. Within two weeks of having been caged at ground level, however, it was killed and eaten by a dog that dug its way into the cage. The owner of the cassowary shot and injured the dog which happened to belong to his sister. After lengthy and public negotiations, the brother and sister each paid the other 20 kina compensation. We saw only one other cassowary of comparable size in 1986-7, at Aumo Hafi.

During this same period, Kubo people were not attempting to rear cassowaries for local consumption. The motive underlying all attempts to rear cassowaries was to sell them to outsiders, either at Kiunga, five days travel to the west, or in the Highlands. In fact, Kubo people seldom travelled these distances and, when they did so, they did not feel secure. The desire to rear cassowaries may have been less than compelling.

In 1991 at Gwaimasi, one cassowary about 120 cm tall was held in captivity and, in the recent past, at least three others had been reared to a large size. At Suabi there were three large captive cassowaries. We saw two of these, one the size of the Gwaimasi bird and the other larger with well-developed wattles. All these cassowaries were securely caged in outdoor enclosures of heavy planks that were buried deep in the ground. They were - 379 fed once or twice daily, sometimes with cooked food and sometimes with fruit gathered from the forest. In the interval since 1986-7, Kubo had clearly increased their rate of success when rearing wild-caught cassowaries. There was no evidence that they had altered management procedures, except in the sense of being more attentive to the birds, but the relationship between bird and carer remained coercive; the birds were never tamed.

The captive cassowaries we saw in 1991, and those reported to us as having been reared in the recent past, were all intended for local consumption. The meat of some of the birds had been sold, or was intended for sale, at local markets; the meat from others had fulfilled, or was intended to fulfil, the requirements of exchange. In fact, at least two of the three Suabi cassowaries were intended as prestations at an initiation that eventuated in April 1992. This was to be the first Kubo initiation at which some initiates presented sponsors with the meat of cassowaries; it was usual practice that initiates presented their sponsors with the meat of domestic pigs (cf. Shaw 1990, regarding neighbouring Samo). The sale of cassowary meat and, sometimes, the meat of domestic pigs at local markets, had been also instigated since 1987.

The traditional diet of Kubo included much animal protein. However, in recent years, access to animal protein has been reduced for SDA affiliates as a consequence of biblical proscriptions. For these people, therefore, domestic chickens and captive cassowaries provide alternative and legitimate sources of protein. But, in 1991, chickens were still sufficiently uncommon, and the killing of cassowaries was so infrequent and socially constrained that neither species could be judged as nutritionally significant. Nor, in fact, among Kubo, were SDA members more likely than ECPNG members to keep chickens or rear cassowaries. The observed changes impacted upon everyone irrespective of allegiance to the teachings of particular missions. It is of note, however, that the SDA church is not represented at Dahamo and that, by 1991, people who resided there did keep chickens but did not rear cassowaries. It is unlikely that nutritional needs motivated alterations to modes of animal domestication.


Attempts to maintain captive chickens and cassowaries had been made before 1988 but had failed or met with little success. Between 1988 and 1991, this changed. For each species, however, the context within which change occurred was different.

The shift from failure to success in the maintenance of chickens followed widespread collapse of local dog populations in late 1987. This event was a significant environmental change. Elsewhere, we have noted its immediate - 380 impact upon strategies of pig-hunting employed at Gwaimasi (Dwyer and Minnegal 1991:88-9), and we think it provided the context within which Kubo people were able to switch to the successful maintenance of chickens. Before the epidemic, attempts to maintain chickens were thwarted by dogs. Indeed, dogs were also potentially dangerous to small piglets and only the extreme attachment of piglet to carer averted this danger. With pigs, but not with chickens, the burden of vigilance on the part of carers eventually paid dividends.

With the death of most dogs, a major impediment to maintaining chickens was removed. The opportunity was available to raise chickens, initially in the absence of a large dog population and, more importantly, at the same time as a new cohort of dogs was bred and, as pups, taught to leave the chickens alone. At the mission stations of Suabi and Dahamo, in years when there were few dogs, rearing chickens could have been achieved by secure enclosure of broods.

By late 1991, the populations of dogs at Suabi, Gwaimasi and Dahamo were again large. But the demographic structure of the populations was not as in 1986-7. In the earlier period, most dogs were mature and pups were either killed or suffered high mortality rates as a consequence of insufficient care. In the later period, immature dogs comprised a significant part of the populations and owners were far more attentive to pups than was the case in 1986-7. By 1991, therefore, the effects of the earlier epidemic were still apparent in the structure of local dog populations. In that year, dogs at Suabi seldom chased chickens. Most chases we observed were by young dogs that were “playing” and were likely to be punished. A few mature dogs, identified as “chicken chasers”, were handicapped when they were in the village by having one leg suspended in a makeshift collar. In 1986-7 we never saw a dog treated in this way. Thus, at least at Suabi, continued success in maintaining chickens had required that techniques of dog-handling were modified.

Suabi and Dahamo have provided both the source of chickens for Gwaimasi and the evidence that rearing can be successful, but, at Gwaimasi, the dog population has increased in advance of the process of acquiring and maintaining household chickens. In 1991 there were nearly as many dogs as there were people though, again, immature dogs and pups comprised much of the population. For this reason, and because Gwaimasi residents remain very mobile, the enclosure of broods is less viable as a means of raising chickens than it was at either mission station. The fact that many of the dogs at Gwaimasi are relatively young should facilitate training them to avoid chickens. Nevertheless, it may be only by employing intensive caring procedures that people are likely to achieve the result they see at Suabi. We - 381 do not know whether the outcome will be viable flocks, or partially isolated birds that remain effectively attached to carers, or a failure.

In contrast with the overt environmental context within which the maintenance of chickens proved successful, we think that success in rearing cassowaries was motivated by change in the social value of the animals. This last change was itself motivated as a consequence of allegiance by many Kubo people to the SDA Church.

Exchanges of domestic pork are important to Kubo. The primary contexts in which they occur constitute statements of intracommunity solidarity, reestablishment of intercommunity relations, male initiation, the needs of curing and death compensation. The arrival of the SDA Church had the effect that those who affiliated with it were potentially alienated from some customary mechanisms for establishing and affirming alliance and for communicating with the spirit world. While acceptance of Christian teaching might compensate for the latter, it cannot replace the former.

The substitution of meat from cassowaries for that from pigs, or the acceptance of meat from these species as equivalents, would satisfy needs of alliance formation that cut across mission allegiance. Between 1988 and 1991, meat from captive cassowaries became an acceptable substitute for meat from domestic pigs in some social exchanges among Kubo people. Some of the cassowaries reared at Gwaimasi were used in prestations to SDA affiliates and the cassowaries intended for the Suabi initiation were similarly linked to the needs of SDA members.

Rearing a cassowary to large size in confined quarters, where it must be provided with fodder over a long period, requires much effort from a carer. Further, in contrast with domestic pigs, large cassowaries are dangerous and cannot be easily moved or allowed to wander free and it is likely, therefore, that Kubo carers of cassowaries routinely enlist help from other people while they attend to subsistence tasks and social obligations that remove them from the village. This might complicate or diffuse rights over the distribution of meat when the animal is killed. At Gwaimasi, in 1991, a woman stated that the necessity to feed a cassowary meant that she could not contribute to a major communal undertaking in which almost all the people spent most nights away from the village. Given the high costs entailed, the motivation for success needed to be strong.

With chickens, a reduction in the cost of maintaining the animals provided the context in which people renewed, and succeeded at, attempts to establish a viable, village-based population. With cassowaries, an increase in the social value of the animals provided the context in which people were motivated to intensify and sustain effort by supplying the birds with the protection and - 382 fodder needed to rear them to large size. The reduced cost of maintaining chickens resulted from the abrupt death of most dogs. The increase in social value of cassowaries arose because a significant part of the human population was potentially alienated from customary forms of alliance formation and affirmation. Thus, the environments within which processes of domestication took place were extraordinarily different — on the one hand, a reduction in predation pressure from dogs and, in the other case, a potentially serious alteration in the social relations of people. Clearly, the contexts within which animal domestication arises are not unidimensional. In evolutionary terms, it is of interest that, while both changes resulted in alteration to ostensible subsistence practices, the successful rearing of cassowaries emerged as a human population strove to maintain and replicate customary forms of social expression — this is consistent with the opinion that “change in open systems occurs as they consolidate and replicate sameness” (Dwyer 1990:195).


With both chickens and cassowaries, the domestic pig served as a model for emerging forms of behaviour. The procedures adopted at Gwaimasi for rearing chickens and the form in which cassowaries were accepted into systems of exchange were analogues of procedures and forms that applied to pigs. The mechanism that underlay change was one of metaphoric extension: the units of change were “ontogenetic puns” (Dwyer 1986:363-7; cf. Barth 1987).

While dogs are implicated in the shift from failure to success in the maintenance of chickens, it was pigs, at least at Gwaimasi, that provided the model for management procedures. We have described the ways in which both young chickens and piglets are tamed at Gwaimasi; the maintenance of both species is reliant upon establishing an extremely close bond between carer and “cared-for” and procedures used to achieve this are identical. Again, the equal sex ratio in flocks of chickens seen at Suabi indicates that, to 1991, Kubo had little or no interest in controlling breeding, and this parallels management practices with pigs where domestic sows mate with wild boars. Finally, agistment of some chickens is also modelled on the situation observed for pigs.

Domestic pigs have provided a model for the management of chickens at Gwaimasi; that model is operational. By contrast, when dealing with cassowaries, pigs afford a cognitive model that legitimises innovative forms of disposal, and this model is founded in Kubo conventions concerning exchange.

The consumption of meat from domestic pigs is an important part of - 383 certain categories of Kubo social exchange. The emphasis on domestic animals at these times is not merely a consequence of the risky nature of hunting and the fact that captive animals are “to hand” when wanted. In other circumstances, Kubo people are able to smoke-dry and store large quantities of meat from wild animals for as long as three months.

When a domestic pig is the medium of exchange, it is public knowledge that the carer has invested in a relationship with the animal concerned. Indeed, that relationship is metaphorically extended from carer to owner to owner's clan such that the domestic animal is exchanged between clans and should not be consumed by co-members of the owner's clan. These constraints do not apply to pigs that have been hunted; here, even the hunter is a legitimate consumer. Further, exchanges of these kinds are often reciprocal, entailing the simultaneous public killing of at least two animals. Transactions of live animals do not occur; indeed, they are probably incompatible with rearing practices based in establishing individualised bonds with carers (cf. Kelly 1988). Finally, it is expected by Kubo that the animals will be of equivalent size and will be fat. This last requirement is not routinely met by wild animals and is not met at all by smoke-dried meat.

With pigs, therefore, it is only domestic animals that satisfy the needs of certain categories of social exchange. Similarly, when cassowaries are used in these exchanges, “wild” animals are not acceptable. Substitution of the meat of cassowaries for that of domestic pigs requires that the exchanged cassowaries are perceived as being like those pigs. In the first instance, this perception is promoted through the public knowledge of a sustained commitment to rearing the bird by a primary carer. As with domestic pigs, the carer has invested in a relationship with an animal that will be eventually exchanged. This relationship is extended to that of the clan of the owner, and the birds are killed and exchanged in circumstances like those that apply to pigs. From the perspective of Kubo, the cassowaries may substitute for pigs only because they have been transformed: through their relationship with people they have become domestic cassowaries.


The University of Queensland awarded periods of study leave to P.D.; within Papua New Guinea we were affiliated with the Biology Department, University of Papua New Guinea (P.D., 1986-7) and the Papua New Guinea National Museum (1991). We thank John and Celia Fletcher for hospitality at Suabi in 1986-7, Vance and Patty Woodyard for hospitality at Dahamo in 1991 and the Kubo and Konai residents of all communities that we visited. P.D. thanks Yutaki Tani for comments that influenced the form of this paper.

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