Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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F. Our experiences with individual Papuan dogs (Sobi and Nerumu)

Several mighty rivers carry the waters of abundant rain from the central mountain ranges towards the Gulf of Papua, on the southern coast of New Guinea. In their vast estuaries the boundaries between the silt – loaded river floods and the murky sea dissolve. A network of narrow channels interconnects these rivers inland from their deltas – passages of travel in dugout canoes between villages on stilts above the mud. It is an amphibious landscape of mangroves , sago and nipa palms and swamp forest that is inundated at high tides by the whirling floods. These tides convert river currents to flow 20 miles inland. Annual rainfall reaches almost 6 meters in the Gulf, on top of the water carried by the rivers into these alluvial wetlands.

Man and dog alike had to adapt to life on wooden planks and narrow canoes to stay and move above the ubiquitous murky floods – and the deep, sticky mud at low tides. The native Papuans migrated to this new homeland when it emerged from the sea, in recorded stages from the Fly River estuary further west. They took also their dogs along on this pioneering journey.

In search for ancient remains of human history and endemic wildlife I travelled extensively in this labyrinth of waterways between 1959 and 1974, for more than 6 months in total (SCHULTZE-WESTRUM 1962, 1968, 1972and in preparation).

In 1966 my wife Susanne accompanied me for 4 months travelling by canoe through the delta region between the Turama and the Purari Rivers. Our base was the old mission house of the London Missionary Society on the volcanic Aird Hill overlooking the wide labyrinth of waterways and forested islands towards the sea. During our extended travels from Aird Hill to the villages of the Kerewo, Gope and Urama tribes we were always on the look out for Papuan dogs which resembled the old coastal strain as I already described it (in chapter E). And we spent much time watching the village dogs, termed káu-kau locally; it was amazing how they were fully integrated in the life of the tribal communities (photo woman with dogs in the house).

No way one could wear shoes during these explorations in the muddy terrain; it was amazing how quickly the dormant muscles of our feet regained strength to grab and hold balance on the slippery ground.

The swamp forest is extremely difficult to penetrate, because of the many air-roots and deep mud-holes. Only for hunting feral pigs men and dogs venture deeper into this still primeval wilderness. There are marked limitations imposed by the environment on the home range of the Papuan Gulf dogs.

Only in settlements along the sea shore of black sand there was space between the houses to move about freely (photos). Most villages were built entirely on stilts over the mud. Gangways of loose mangrove poles connected the houses and stairs of fitted smaller poles lead up to the dwellings and open platforms (photos). The floors were made of flattened – out layers of hard palm wood.

This was the daily realm also for the village dogs. They seemed to maintain an overall hierachy, but with distinct divisions imposed by human ownership: each dog belonged to a household and only the dogs of the family occupying the house (photo interior with several dogs and woman) had access to it. As long as this communal system was respected there were only minor quarrels, for instance about food bits on neutral grounds.

A favoured diet in the delta region of the Papuan Gulf are crabs. But the bulk food consists of sago (starch) prepared for human consumption by heating it up in bamboo tubes. The dogs also were fed with pieces of coconuts.

Papuan Gulf dogs are fond of being paddled along the waterways like our civilized dogs love to be taken on a car ride (figs. 32, 33). But they avoid by all means to get wet; if it starts raining – and it does quite frequenty, they immediately seek shelter or look miserable when exposed to the rain. They can swim, of course, but they never venture into any river deliberately, with good reason because of the large salt-water crocodiles having snatched quite a few dogs over the years.

When ascending a steep log that leads up to the floor of a house on stilts, dogs usually take an onset run from the ground, then set their claws steeply onto the wood, without having much touch by the fore feet soles while climbing up (figs. 57, 58).

We noted the great cleanliness of these dogs in the villages: they would not place their faeces on the floor of inhabited houses. When we had to take our Gulf dog Sobi by ship from Port Moresby to Brisbane in Australia, on the voyage to Germany (because of quarantine regulations), she had a full mental block to let her faeces go on the wooden deck (photo). We had to consult the ship’s doctor and give her a dose of relaxative pills, and Sobi yelled when she could not hold it anymore. That much she was embarrassed.

We had spotted Sobi in Karati village of the Gope tribe: her appearance was of „pure“ native coastal dog strain: a slim, very elegant build, the fur short, soft, tight on the skin. Colouration fawn beige – brown, white markings on her feet and a white tip on the tail. A black face which over the years, with growing age changed to white. The ears steadily stood upright. The tail usually did not bend up in a loop over the back, but rather was worn balanced out in a slight bend at body’s hight (photos). Of course we had no insight to what extent the genetic constellation was as pure as the outer appearance suggested.

When we acquired Sobi from her owner at Gipi village, she was still young, certainly less than two years of age. We kept her in the beginning on a long lead, and fed her well, first at Gipi and then at Aird Hill station. We had to pass through the critical period of converting her from the Papuan company to our own: we had noticed that all village dogs kept a certain distance from us foreigners , not so from other Papuans which had come along with us. I believe that it is the distinct body odour which made the difference. According to this theory, domestic dogs are imprinted to the odour of the humans they are associated with from young age, both to the general ethno-specific odour and also to the individual odours of the closer human company.

This imprinted attachment can more easily change if the animal is still young: Sobi was able to convert to us within a period of a few weeks. But from that time she kept a certain distance to Papuans which she was not acquainted with personally. But less distinctively than village dogs keep away from foreigners. And soon she began to behave quite in a superior manner towards fellow dogs – as if she had realized that now her status was special.

Actually Sobi did realize this superiority and behaved accordingly: she was the queen bitch and walked freely about in foreign villages but always with an eye at us if we stayed nearby. The best pictorial evidence is the photograph that shows her on the veranda of the Bosavi communal house with the native dog standing in the door frame in distance (fig. 45). Sobi could’nt care less – because I was close to her, as I assume.

Like the other village dogs in the Gulf district Sobi was very sensitive, and she was not used to be left unattended. So we could not leave her at home on her own, there was too much agitation: After our return from the field, we had been given a bungalow at the government’s quarantine station Kila Kila next to Port Moresby to stay. One evening Susanne and me were invited for an official reception in town and we had to lock up Sobi in the house. It took less than one hour and Sobi turned up at the party: she had bitten through the plywood door. How she could have found her way remains one of the many mysteries one experiences in countries like New Guinea. So from then we always took Sobi with us, and she became quite a celebrity in colonial time Port Moresby (photo: Sobi in my arms).

All our further travels into the wilderness, in single-engine Cessna aircrafts, on trucks and boats of many kind Sobi was our cheerful companion (figs. 12 on the right, 15, 31, 45). Note: pictures of Nerumu will be added.  Sobi loved going places. And she never run away any distance. Our tour to the summit of Mt. Bosavi (2.896 meters) – three days mostly in drizzle rain through the drippling, soaked moss forest certainly was not the peak of her liking, but she went through alright without loosing her good spirit (fig. 59).

When I had been bitten by a poisonous snake (F36) and was shivering from a strong internal feeling of cold, I laid down and took Sobi in my arm, to give me her body heat. She must have realized, curled up on my chest and stayed there patiently, without any further suggestion from our side.

Quarantine regulations in Australia are very strict, with good reason, because rabies and other dangerous contagious diseases have not reached the continent yet. In order to get permission for Sobi to pass through Australia on the way to Germany, we had to travel by ship, not by areoplane to Brisbane. I alread have mentioned Sobi’s agony of letting her droppings go on the wooden deck. Then at Brisbane harbour a government van was waiting with a sprayed container in the rear: Sobi was not permitted to touch Australian soil, but had to stay confined and was carried straight to the airport. We had consulted a vet and had given her some tranquillizer pills; so she was not over-agitated. In those earlier days of air travels (1966), the nightmares of terrorism and all the subsequent precautions were not thought of yet. So at stop-overs, for instance at New Deli I was allowed to crawl into the (temperated) unaccompanied baggage hold and gave Sobi another pill to swallow. She was alright, but a drop of clear fluid pending from her nose, was enought an indication of her excitement.

So we arrived back home at last. The old Munich airport was still a very quiet place as compared with the buzzle of modern times. The customs officers seemed much more curious to see those exotic marsupials we had also brought alive from New Guinea (F37). So I quickly released Sobi from her confinement and put her on the lead. My mother had been allowed to join us behind customs bars, to welcome us after so many months abroad. „Take the lead, Mum“ I said, and no-one realized that Sobi had come with us: so we saved her from months of quarantine which would have been a torture for her … I could do so knowing that smuggling Sobi into Europe that way was not irresponsible, because both Australia and New Guinea were much less infested with contagious diseases; and there was no rabies. It was against regulations, though.

To celebrate our re-union and the happy end of all our adventures out there we went to one of the traditional Munich beer cellars straight from the airport. The marsupials had been taken care of at the Zoological Institute… and Sobi was now resting comfortably and relaxed under the large table enjoying her first delicious Bavarian meal: white pork sausages… one after the other. She felt perfectly alright.

Then came the period of careful association with our male boxer Greif who had been taken care of by the family during our absence. Soon both played in our large garden in a Munich suburb, and I remember the two tearing on a piece of wood at opposite ends, the boxer apparently giving some ground to the smaller lady, but she pulling with all force.

The only exclusive territory for Sobi was the rather flat roof of our two storey house:

she had kept her climbing habits and had easy access to the roof through a loft window. People walking past on the roadside were wondering what that that dog was doing up there… Her exploration ventures took Sobi right to the bedroom of our dear neighbours; how lucky we were they did’nt mind.

Did she keep some memory of her former life in the Papuan village? Sometimes she started howling, a long and melodious tone, an expression of feeling homesick perhaps – but not just for Sobi as we had kept fond memories of the villages on stilts in the mud as well and the chorus of dogs howling at night.

Winter approached, and when the first blanket of snow had covered the garden lawn, our little Papuan dog jumped into another playground of fun: in zig-zag course she raced through the waist deep snow and rolled over and over in the soft powder of ice crystals.

Over a period of several months Greif adopted the howling and Sobi began to bark in the way the local dogs do – I have referred to this obseration in the previous chapter.

In the following winter, one year later, Greif died suddenly of a heart attack – he fell over while we were walking on a forest trail – death from over-breeding I suspect. He was such a strong and well kept dog, only in his forth year of life…

Obviously we had the intention of breeding the Papuan coastal dogs, so we needed a mate for Sobi. The opportunity arose in 1968, when I was invited to present a lecture on my research in marsupial social communication by odours, during a congress at Rockefeller University of New York. I changed the return ticket to a routing via San Francisco and Sydney to Port Moresby. And a few days later I was back to the villages on stilts in the Gulf and joined my Papuan companions. By dugout canoe we travelled to the Gope villages in search for a male dog matching Sobi’s appearance. At Meagoma, not far from the place where we had found Sobi, I spotted a beautiful individual, of immaculate colouration and shape – tall and elegant in his movements – but very shy. I bought Nerumu, but soon I had to realize that he was too much advanced in age to associate with strangers as easily as Sobi. His imprinting on Papuans was too much fixed already. I had to keep Nerumu confined and only after my return to Germany I discovered that his testicles had not descended fully from the body cavern – Nerumu turned out to be infertile… gone was the dream to establish a beeding colony of Papuan dogs, at least for the time being.

Over months and years Nerumu became quite tame, but never like Sobi. The two established mutual close ties and when we moved to an old farmhouse near Lake Starnberg, we could leave both dogs roam freely; they never went far away from the house. And became excellent guard dogs. One day we had carpenters doing some repair work at our barn. Sobi accepted them moving about (because we were on regular talking terms with the craftsmen). But when one of them went into the kirchen through an external door and approach Susanne there straight on, Sobi rushed at him at once and bit through his trousers deep into his leg.

Our children Matthias and Stephanie grew up with both dogs, but Nerumu always remained a bit strange and even snapped when approached too abruptly. Sobi turned out to be very fertile and had quite a few offspring with her lovers, one of them a black poodle from the neighbourhood (photos). Why should she have made any difference: it was our aim to keep a racial distinction – she could’nt care less about such things, nor our children – quite rightly.

Sobi lived with us for seven years until she was run over by a car and instantly died, near her home. She had remained the perfect dog all these years to a sudden end.

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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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