Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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G. Traditional dog husbandry in selected regions of New Guinea

There are records of many different customs how dogs were kept and made use of in New Guinea and wider Melanesia. We have noted several examples in chapter E already.

Now a more systematic and detailed picture will be presented, from the time when colonial impacts began to bring ethnic traditions to an end. In the following chapter H then I will present examples from the earlier Papuan history, which role dogs played in tales from the past and in tribal mythology.

Highland traditions:

One intriguing question should be delt with upfront: Why are dogs in the highlands less associated with village people than in the lower regions of mainland New Guinea and on the satellite islands?

Also archaeological dog records from the New Guinea highlands are sparse and their dating more recent than in the lowlands (cf. chapter D).

In pre-colonial times the wide highland valleys were more densely populated than any other part of the island, by large tribal groups, e.g. the Dani in West Papua, the Huli and Enga in the southern and western parts of the PNG highlands, the Mbowamb in the Central Highlands, the Simbu (=Chimbu) and tribes in the Eastern Highlands, including the Kalam people. These rather complex societies were mainly agricultural; their sophisticated cultivation of tubers and other crops is one of the oldest in the word (cf. chapter D). Hunting in the majority of these populations played an inferior role as compared with the scattered ethnic groups on both sides of the central cordilliera, for instance in the Mt. Bosavi region (cf. chapter E).

In the highland valleys wide areas of anthropomorphous grasslands developed in the wake of intense shifting cultivation. They extended in still higher regions above 3.000m to the natural alpine meadows and shrublands: both suitable habitats for feral dogs.

So one can identify two prime factors having influenced the relationsship between tribal people and the dogs they introduced, in view of traditional land use methods: Firstly, the kind and extent of these land use methods: either intense crop cultivation or utilizing of wild resouces (including hunting) to a larger degree. And secondly the long-term ecological effects these methods had (if any; but certainly in the case of shifting cultivation in the high valleys) in providing suitable living conditions for dogs away from human settlements.

There is a third point to be added: Pig husbandry for the highlanders was more significant than for the tribes of the hills and the lowlands. In the highland villages, therefore, less food was available for scavenging dogs; the pigs took the prime share.

But caution is necessary in any generalization of these conditions; here one example: In African negroid societies dog husbandry was centred in tribes having a mostly agricultural subsistence. Pigmies and other nomad groups did obtain their hunting dogs from these sedentary breeders (FRANK 1965).

When claiming a wild status for the NGSD of the New Guinea highlands (cf. chapters B and C) it’s promotors bring forward a number of points, for instance that „no fully domesticated dogs have ever established a completely wild, self-sustaining population, with the exception of the Galapagos Island dogs“ (meanwhile exterminated). „So although the dingoes/Singers had to be transported to their respective ranges, they may well have been only semi – domesticated or even wild, tamed dogs“ (F38, F39). But is’nt the dingo a feral dog par excellance, roaming free and totally independent in a largely open environment that is equally occupied by the Aboriginals in an extensive way! Presumambly, for the early immigrants the dog was not much of use on Australian soil in gathering food when they eventually reached the continent together with a few dogs, probably from New Guinea. (There must have been some serious motivation to bring dogs along on their migrations.) Dogs in the new environment rather had to be regarded as competitive consumers and scavengers whose role in hunting was not significant enough to motivate their permanent keeping as „domestic“ dogs at the shelters of human habitation. But like in the highlands of New Guinea, dogs were kept, in small numbers though.

I have already stressed that there are gradual differences in attachment and in other variations of dog husbandry as well. One of these relationships is the loose contact between human populations and feral dog populations in wide overlapping territories of the New Guinea central mountains – where „wild“ living dogs still remain scavengers, take food from human sources and are attracted by humans even as they avoid direct encounters. And there are records of pups taken from feral mothers and reared in the villages (BULMER 2000, cf. below) – for comparison: the dingo in Australia „lived as a wild animal, but some groups of Aboriginals used dingoes in a semidomestic state as pets or in hunting“ (SAVOLAINEN et al. 2004).

The Kalam people of the Kaironk Valley in the Eastern Highlands Division, like other highland tribes, used Singing dogs „as semi – domesticated hunting dogs“ and this „may reflect a long – lived special kind of relationship with dogs“ (BULMER 2000). While Australian Aborigines look at dingoes as direct competitors in their food gathering economy, this factor is not significant for the New Guinea highland tribes. It has already been mentioned that they were mainly horticulturists.

Among the Kalam, a man must stay away from his taro gardens for a month if he kills or buries a dog or handles a dog giving birth to puppies.

Bulmer continues (loc.cit.): Kalam dogs are not bred, but captured as pups from feral parent dogs, then raised under very controlled conditions. These tamed dogs are regarded as important assets. Introduced non – highland dogs were considered as unfit for the climatic conditions and not as good in hunting. In trade the Singing Dog type is the most favoured variety.

Dogs are owned by individual men in Kalam society. They are kept as pets and for the occasional hunting ventures: it’s the role of the dog to track the prey for a hunter to kill. In Kalam villages one finds only a very few dogs; in 1976 only approximately a dozen dogs in a human population of some 700 people were counted (F40).

So why are highland dogs that rarely seen in villages and are, according to the published records not bred in the village compounds? The reason cannot be their little value, as has been pointed out the Singing dog is being the highest valued type. Nor can dog keeping in general be an adoption of recent origin (cf. S. Bulmer’s qote above). According to the thorough field research of Ralph Bulmer and his collaborators dogs figure importantly in Kalam mythology (cf. original papers about Kalam ethno – zoology: BULMER 1976; MAJNEP and BULMER 2000; BULMER and PAWLEY 2000).

Equally the feral or „wild“ status cannot be linked with any bearing reason for the practice of capturing pups instead of breeding. That custom rather has to be seen as having originated and maintained out of deeply rooted cultural motifs – which date back to the times when the highland dog became mostly feral, because the previous domesticated status quo was abandoned. Perhaps in the wake of the highlanders gradually developing their sophisticated agricultural system and hunting becoming less practiced because of the changes in economy and life styles – and because of the environmental changes with forests largely retreating from the realm of settlements. Only a further thorough analysis of mythological evidence and the delicate balance between traditional horticultural practices and other methods of subsistence (including hunting) can possibly reveal the causes in early evolution after arrival oft these tribal groups in the highlands. It is certainly a counterproductive approach to argue on and on about the wild or feral status of these dogs, instead of considering the relevant cultural and ecological factors above all.

The Kalam settle in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. If we look right across to the far western region of the island’s mountain spine, we discover a comparable situation: the highlanders in (Indonesian occupied) West Papua (the Dani people and several other populous tribes) cultivate wide valleys in a similiar way as in Papua New Guinea. Shifting cultivation has reduced the forest, only patches remain throughout the more densely populated valleys and on lower slopes, e.g. in the region of the Wissel Lakes. Whilst this region sustains an particularly dense human population, again dogs are very scarce in these West Papua highland settlements. And equally highly valued. I found this relevant passage in LE ROUX (1950 – for the full Dutch original text cf. F41).In general dogs are scarce at the mountain Papoea’s; in most settlements only one specimen is found, seldom more than one. To my understanding they did not want to loose them or sell, especially the grown-up specimens, as they are very important for hunting and tracking wild animals. Our zoologist had to pay at Lake Paniai (note: one of the Wissel Lakes) a high price in shells and metal axes to get two dogs“ (F42). I did not find any reference to feral dogs in this western mountain region, but they may occur. Nor do I have any data if these western highlanders breed their dogs, or capture pups of feral parents. A photograph taken at Lake Paniai was published by LE ROUX 1950 ( photo Nr…). This specimen presents the general highland strain.

From the Dugum Dani tribe GARDNER and HEIDER report (1968, caption to photograph No. 17 on p. 19): „The Dani have dogs, which are kept by the few men who occasionally hunt birds and furry animals in the forest.“

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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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