Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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Dogs in tribal subsistence:

Village traditions evolve over uncounted generations of closely bonded individuals in relatively small groups – as compared with our modern, rather anonymously bound society were true traditions cannot be sustained. This fact relates also to animal husbandry, in the process of domestication and then in adopting the ways of keeping and utilization to both the animals abilities and human society’s requirements. The selection of behavioural patterns in traditional society folllowed strict rules in an evolutionary process that had one objective: the survival of the own communal unit. The motivations which are dominant in our urban civilization to keep dogs as pets only, this rather modern trend was no significant part of village tradions. One should not conclude, though, that there were no affectionate ties between village people and their dogs (cf. further below).

No particular attention is given to the nurture of pups – they grow up being looked after by the women. But again there are exceptions: sometimes young dogs like piglets are nursed on the breast (STERLY 1962).

The following distinct motives for rearing dogs in Papuan village society can be identified: the alreday mentioned assistance in hunting, as trade assets (live dogs and dog teeth), in keeping settlements (together with village pigs) clean of human food remains, faeces, as an alarm system against hostile raids, and last not least as a source of meat: In many Papuan societies dog was not eaten at all, others regarded it as a primary source of meat. In none of the areas I visited personally dog was traditionally eaten. In West Papua this habit recenty spread with the arrival of dog eating Indonesians from north Sulawesi in particular. The missionary E. Baxter Riley, F.R.A.I., writes about the Papuans on Kiwai Island in the estuary of the Fly River: „ The first time I went to Auti (village) I received a large portion of sago, bananas and other native vegetables, along with the hind leg of a dog, cooked to a turn on a hot wood fire. I did not partake of this delicacy, but took it aboard my ship. It disappeared later on, and my crew were very upset when they discovered that it had mysteriously vanished. I had no idea at the time that some of them had cast covetous eyes upon it“ (RILEY 1925). The natives of the Astrolabe Bay in northern New Guinea reared dogs only for eating their fattened corpses at festive occasions (HAGEN 1899; cf. also FINSCH 1888 in F35; WILLIAMS 1924 in chapter E).

These utilitarian motives should not be considered as the only vehicle for dog keeping. though. Interrelations should not be considered as a mere „subsistence“ alliance like the one projected for the so called pariah dogs (F43). Emotional attachment, affection certainly is integrated in the traditional man – dog relations in Papuan tribal life (cf. the film captions at the end of this chapter).


Dogs are customary goods in barter trade. For instance, the Iwaino people of Urama Island in the Papuan Gulf supplied most of the dogs for the Purari Delta region further east (WILLIAMS 1924).

Perforated dog teeth were traded across tribal boundaries, for instance in the Papuan Gulf of southern New Guinea. They were mostly used to make necklets, and the amount of teeth lined up in every single such ornament is impressive (F44). In the Purari Delta of southern New Guinea dog teeth are used as a kind of currency (F45). In the western region of the Papuan Gulf, between the Purari and the Turama Rivers we collected several necklets (termed náia in Damaibari village) and head bands (béte) recently knitted, with perforated dog teeth attached (up to 47 teeth counted; fig. 36 warrior). At the same village Damaibari we also collected a kind of curtain worn by women in mourning in front of the face, made of knitted string with dog teeth attached (wíto-wi,fig. 38; objects mentioned for the Papuan Gulf are now in the Berlin Museum of Ethnography). In the village of Mina Goiravi of the Gope ethnic district I photographed in 1970 the initiation ceremony Pairoma with many dog teeth on diplay (fig. 37). The best quality was evaluated by the whiteness of teeth.

The teeth were said to have been traded from the upper Turama River. In that rugged region of eroded limestone ridges feral dogs live in rock shelters, small crevices and caves. Peope used to travel up the Turama to obtain dog teeth, as I was told by several informants independently, by this rough method: Once a man had located a dog in a cave not too deep, he poked a sago leaf rib into the hole until the dog bit firmly into the rather soft sago pith – wood. Then the handler pulled the stick, with the dog clenching its teeth into it, sharply so that the front teeth broke out of the bone and remained stuck in the pith. I expressed my doubts whether the teeth would come out that way being strongly fixed in their bone cavities, but the villagers stuck firmly to their story.

This limestone country is situated south of the Mt. Bosavi region were we collected skulls and took photographs (cf. chapter E). There may well be a local population of feral dogs in quite a distance from the central cordilliera in this remote wilderness situated at the transition from the lowlands to the inland hill ridges. TITCOMB (1969) refers to observations of „wild“ dogs in a few other low elevation locations of New Guinea (F46).

From the lower Turama River, inland from the estuary, AUSTEN (1948) reports: „ Dogs‘ teeth form a very valuable article of trade, and dogs are bred in all the villages.“

The Papuans of the western part of southern Papua New Guinea (Majub people) bury deceased dogs and mark the location by a stick so that they can later find it again, excavate the skeleton and take the (front) teeth (NEVERMANN 1939).

S. BULMER (2000) refers to the discovery of perforated dog incisors (F47) form prehistorical Lapita sites near Port Moresby and on Yule Island further along on the south coast of New Guinea. The Yule Island site of Oposisi contained perforated dog incisors from the period of 2.500 to 2000 BP. In one site near the Laloki River 50 perforated dog teeth were found dated to about 750 BP. They seem to have been placed around the neck or waist of burials.

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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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