Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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The coastal – lowland strain of Papuan dogs:

My personal observations cover the region from Port Moresby westwards to the Mekeo territory and to the Papuan Gulf, to Daru, the Bensbach area near the border to West Papua, furthermore villages in the vicinity of Kaimana and the Kumawa Peninsula, the Gulf of Berau and the Birdhead section of western New Guinea, right up to islands of the Raja Ampat Archipelago (Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo).

The photographs presented (fig. 5 ff.)give a fair impression of the proportions as compared with the inland strains of dogs: the coastal populations are fairly slim, have a taller build than inland dogs, the fur is short with the fine hair lying tight to the skin (F34). Colouration of phenotypically „pure“ individuals (like our own dogs Sobi and Nerumu from the Papuan Gulf, for instance) is reddish – yellowish fallow brown similiar to the lighter strain of Bosavi dogs. Usually the face is more or less black , often with a white blaze, and the tail ends in a white tip. Also the feet show frequently white markings. Pupil colour is mostly dark amber brown.

There were many varieties to be found in the coastal region in the 1960s, of dogs with a brown instead of a black face, with the coat hair being darker, or longer and having a more coarse structure – some individuals could be clearly distinguished as imported or interbred with foreign dogs; for others it was impossible to determine whether their characters were native in the range of endogene mutations over the very long period of domestication („Reinzucht“) in New Guinea, or the result to influx of genes in the wake of colonial invasion or during traditional trade relations with Indonesia. Even early travellers found a remarkable variation in certain coastal regions (cf.F35 a – FINSCH 1888; summary below: STERLY 1962).

Wikipedia guided me to the observations of Nicolai Mikluho Maclay, the first resident biologist in New Guinea, in the region of Astrolabe Bay,  (since 1871), cf. F35 b .

One also has to consider possible preferences in selection by the village people over the ages (c.f. figs. 43, 44): Therefore it remains an impossible task to draw a clear line of distinction and my terminology „pure“ is only indicating a hypothetical original appearance in the usual wide framework of strains, prior to „white man“ imports of foreign dogs. In the photo gallery I assembled several examples of a fairly slim dog variety from the Papuan Gulf (figs. 39 – 42) It matches in habitus the Idam valley (upper Sepik) speciments (figs. 43, 44). One should consider the possibility that this strain variety resembles a separate import by pre-European migrants. Characteristic for this variety is the tail being held bent upwards (figs. 41 – 44).

Black dogs with white markings in the face, on the tail and feet should be classified as an adequate alternative to the fallow brown „pure“ specimens, but less frequent – this type dichotomy being also found in regions further inland (figs. 51 – 54).

But AUSTEN (1950, p. 206) mentions that he found in the Star Mountains only this black and white variety.

I wish to point to the couple of dogs in fig. 39: the black specimen shows a very peculiar colour marking above each of its eyes: this conspicuous brown pair of dots can be found in quite a few primitive dogs also far from Oceania, for instance in Sardinian shepherd dogs (fig. 62)) and in a number of recognized breeds: Tibetan Mastiff, Dachshund, Shetland Sheepdog, Italian Hound, Terriers, Doberman – just to give some examples (taken from ALDERTON 1987). The pair of brown dots above the eyes appeared also in pups of „Sobi“ from the Papuan Gulf (fig. 63). However, I cannot say who was the father…

Equally conspicuous and widely spread are the white face markings as they are peculiar for Basengji, Brittany Spaniel, Boston Terrier, Bernese Mountain Dog, Bavarian Schweisshund, Border Collie, Welsh Springer Spaniel, Cardigan Corgi, St. Bernhard, Pekinese, Japanese Chin, Ibizan Hound, Fox Hound and several more breeds. In combination both these markings in brown and white can also be found, for instance in the Dunker, the Cocker Spaniel and the Smooth Collie. (Examples taken again from ALDERTON 1987).These distinct and repetitive patterns deserve a systematic genetic comparative study that should include also wild canids. As early as 1888 Otto Finsch pointed out the characteristic white body markings of Papuan Dogs: a considerable variability can be found, as he observed, with the majority being of reddish-fawn brown colouration and having a white snout, middle line on their front head (a „blaze“), white throat, stomach and tip of tail (after STERLY 1962; cf. orginal text in F35). White „socks“ on their feet should be added to these ancient colouration patterns.

Back to the lowland strain of Papuan Dogs: WILLIAMS (1924) provides this description from the Purari Delta of the Papuan Gulf: „The native dog proper is small, with pointed ears and snout, and a smooth coat of uniform yellow-brown colour. He is entirely inoffensive, and on the whole, a cowardly, querulous little creature; he is of little use in hunting, and in fact may be badly worsened by a village suckling-pig smaller than himself. Apparently the native dog cannot bark, but numbers will howl together, especially in the morning, when the canoes go out and they are left behind. A good many mongrel „white man“ dogs have been introduced from different sources, and these are larger and better specimens, useful in hunting. No dogs however, appear to flourish in the Delta. They are often pitiably skinny and diseased.

The dog is kept for eating, and for ceremonial purposes will often stand in lieu of a pig. To kill one, a man will seize it by the hind legs and and beat its body on the ravi (=longhouse) floor; two or three blows are usually enough.“

In the hill country inland from the Papuan Gulf swamplands, in villages of the Ikobi- Kairi people on the Kikori River (for instance the village of Buru), a population of heavier built dogs was recorded by us in 1966. The male photographed at Tutugu village (figs. 3, 4) represents the type which extends further up the Kikori, perhaps as far as Lake Kutubu.

At this point I wish to quote also the annotations by AUSTEN (1950, p. 206) as presented from the lower Turama River inland of the estuary – in a south-westerly direction from the locations just mentioned: „ The village dog has much of a dingo in him and does not bark, but only howls. There are some purer specimens, and to-day these are undoubtedly mixed with European dogs bought from neighbouring tribes in closer contact with the Government. Whether there was a mixture of the real dog with the dingo in pre-European days I am unable to say. However, among some of the tribes in the Star Mountains of north-west Papua, who had no contact with Europeans prior to my arrival, I found a variety of village dog that was not dingo-coloured, but was black and white. These dogs, too did not bark, but could only howl like a dingo. Perhaps they came form Indonesia via the Bamberamo (=Mamberamo) River in north Dutch New Guinea. So it is not improbable that the same species over a long period of years would gradually be traded eastward along the mountain villages and some might have been brought down to the Turama district in the time of Guri’s (= a mythical hero’s) migration from Mt. Leonhard Murray (= Mt. Bosavi). Again Indonesian voyagers may have traded some of these dogs along the coast of New Guinea to the north of the Sepik whence they could gradually have found their way into the central mountain ranges in which the Turama has its source.“

Looking from the Papuan seashore south, across the sea to the Australian realm, the Fraser Island population of feral dingoes comes into focus: the slim and tall build of coastal Papuan dogs is matched by the appearance of Fraser Island dingos. They are regarded as an old strain that remained (largely) clear of modern dogs inbreeding (F23, F24). To what extent already approx. 100 years ago imported domestic dogs had been adopted by Aboriginals, can be seen from the photographs of Baldwin Spencer (VANDERVAL 1982).

Sadly the last opportunity has passed to rescue the native strain of the New Guinea lowlands; inbreeding with imported dogs has affected even those remaining individuals which may look „pure“ (cf. my remarks earlier in this section), but carry certainly also genes of those non-native dogs of various kind. But there are still dogs in most places along the coast which resemble at least the phenotype. The last such individuals I personally spotted were video-shot in Wai Lebed village of Batanta Island, Raja Ampat Archipelago in 2003.

All these coastal – lowland Papuan dogs are true domestic animals, there are no feral populations known. And their husbandry in the villages includes criteria such as ownership, belonging to a certain household in the village compound, feeding, and functions in hunting, guarding or keeping the village clean. These dogs stay close to humans all the time (figs. 23 – 27; 32, 33). And they are looked after continuously. The image of scavenging dogs at the periphery of villages does not apply here. I will come back to these conditions when writing about our Papuan dogs which we took back to Munich, in the following chapter.


By comparing the descriptions of dogs from various altitudinal regions of New Guinea, the hitherto undifferenciated and unbalanced picture has been modified. We have discussed to what extent environmental conditions can be recognized as being significant in shaping several distinct strains over the period of millenia . These varieties should be divided by their appearance into two main groups: the stocky built type which is presented in the highlands and the sub – montane regions, and the slim, long – legged type with is found in the lowlands. STERLY (1962) came to a matching conclusion. Both these main lineages meet in areas inland, for instance the Bosavi area where we have idientified the co-existence of these two types. The lowland dogs again are closely linked to the dingo, and I have referred to the resemblance of Papuan coastal dogs to the Fraser Island dingo population in this respect.

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This entry was posted on November 11, 2010 at 21:05 and is filed under Gulf of Papua, Papuan Dogs, Rare breeds, Zoological Research.

7 Responses to “Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man”

  1. Janice Koler-Matznick sagt:

    I just wanted to let people interested in primitive and aboriginal dogs know that there are now Facebook sites dedicated to them: ‎The INDog Project for the Indian village dogs, Village Dogs and Primitive Pariahs World Wide, and African aboriginal dogs. There is also a web site for the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society:

    Contrary to the statements made in the good Dr. Schultze-Westrum’s major contribution to the knowledge about Papuan dogs, the New Guinea singing dog has never been selected in captivity to any „breed“ standard. In fact, after an initial short false start with United Kennel Club, we started the NGSD Conservation Society with its own stud book and no more Singers were registered with UKC. As soon as we had genetic proof they are dingoes, we had them removed from the UKC which does not register AU dingoes. I wrote the standard (required by UKC) after surveying all owners of Singers and having them measure their specimens. All variation in the unavoidably inbred population was included in the written standard/description. The only selection that has gone on is against badly kinked tails as if continued or bred together this can result in problems in the spine. We facilitated the establishment of the NGSDCS Papua New Guinea, a recognized non-profit group in Papua, and have tried for a decade to get field work done on wild Singers, sending equipment, but so far due to lack of major funding not much has been accomplished there. We are still doing what we can but we are a tiny group.

  2. Thomas Schultze-Westrum sagt:

    Hi, many thanks indeed for your encouragement. I am still working on the assemly of papers and notes In the Name of Conservation,
    Keep in touch!

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