Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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H. Mythology and folk-tales about dogs in selected Papuan tribes

Dogs in the spiritual perception of New Guinea natives belong to the inner sphere of human existence, and this inherited definition had to be strictly observed in practice. At the beginning of customary life stood initiation rituals – as described in the previous chapter. After death the close identity with human beings again becomes apparent: In the coastal Mimika region of southern New Guinea deceased highly reputed hunting dogs were given the honour of funeral ceremonies whereby the women danced in mourning costumes on the ceremonial platform of the village. (STERLY 1962). And LANDTMAN (1927) reports from Kiwai Island in the estuary of the Fly River: The natives are having difficulties to bury the bodies of dead, old dogs which had been renown for their high fighting spirit when attacking pigs and had been given large quantities of powerful medicine. It was not feasible to throw the corpses into the water, because one had then to be afraid to take a bath at that spot, and it was not advisable neither to bury them in the ground. These were said to be the reasons why such dogs occasionally are exposed on small platforms in the bush, where they remain until they decompose– a practize that was in use also for human bodies before burial in the ground was introduced. From the Eipo people of the West Papuan highlands the German researchers referred to at the end of the previous chapter report that „of all the animals, dogs alone are afforded tree tombs like people“ (50).

According to R. BULMER (1976), the Kalam people of the PNG Eastern Highlands treat dog bone quite differently as compared with bone from other animals. Animal bones left from ordinary domestic cooking were fed to the dogs and village pigs or left at the site, whereas after ritual cooking at the men’s cult house left over bones were carefully kept in the house and afterwards placed in forked branches of trees. Such bones are contaminating, but only as long as they have flesh or blood attached. Dog remains are disposed off by the Kalam people in the forest or in an area of lower bush buried in a shallow grave or left on the ground surface under a cover of foliage. Never they are buried near the settlement in order not to contaminate gardens. A particularly good hunting dog would be buried like a warrior, placed on a wooden platform above the ground in a small fenced enclosure. Eventually, once the bones were clean they would be placed in the fork of a tree in the forest, like human bones. The mandibles of a renowned hunting dog might be displayed in „his own separate part of the wall of his owner’s house“ (after S. BULMER 2000).

Government anthropologist F.E. Williams reports from the Transfly – country west of the mighty Fly River (1936, p. 421): „„Dogs are buried when they die, and not without the scattering of yam fragments around the grave which is a feature of human burial. Further, I am assured, the master of a good hunting dog would break his arrows (not too many I imagine) upon its death and refrain from hunting for a while. No reason is given for such an observance except that the dog’s master is „sorry“.“

The dog had the status of a totem in that region of southern New Guinea (WILLIAMS 1936, p.97 and p. 102). Ghosts of the deceased (ninyi) which roam the realm of the living are mostly invisible for people. But they can be seen by the dogs and that is why sometimes their voices raise in a united howl (loc. cit p. 370).

Also among the Elema people in the eastern part of the Papuan Gulf the dog was classified a totem animal; it was depicted on the eháro masks of the dog totem kinship groups (WILLIAMS 1940). Further west, at Tetehui village in the Gope Ethnic District, we collected the skull of a dog mounted on a stick (úmu; now in the Berlin Museum of Ehnography).

Austen (1948, p. 19) provides this annotation from the Umaidai people which settle west of the lower Turama River in the Papuan Gulf Province: „At Umaidai, where there seems to be a host of dogs, I wanted to shoot a dog that was very mangy. Before this could be done I had to buy the dog, for which I paid a tomahawk, one 18-inch knife and some beads. After the dog was shot, the people set up the death wail all night. It is interesting to note here that the word umai means dog, and though I have not been able to get a correct translation of the suffix dai, I feel certain that it means „„people,““ not people generally, but those of a certain totem. We see the ending again in Wariadai where waria means ““hawk.““ Here are some payments made for a dog while I was at Umaidai: (a) 1 crescent pearlshell, 1 bead necklace, 6 strings of cowry shells (each 3 feet long), 1 neglet strung with cowries. (b) 1 towahawk, 1 bead necklace, 1 groin shell, 1 plane iron for canoemaking, 3 feet of cowries. (c) 2 strings of dogs‘ teeth, 2 bead necklaces, 1 groin shell, 4 armshells and 2 mother-of-pearl crescent breast shells.“

The high esteem for the dog shines though this story from the south-coast of Papua, narrated by BUTCHER (1963, p. 40 ff.,shortend)): In the days of very long ago the people of the land possessed no fire. They could cook no food nor could they warm themselves at night when the winds from the mountains made them shiver. Yet there was fire in the land. Far up on the mountain top it blazed, guarded by Haiavaha, a creature great and terrible, with long hairy arms, ever on the watch lest men should come and steal it. Often they had tried to get it, but they had always failed.

Almost in despair, they sent messages to the people of the forest calling them to conference: and from the long grass and the shade of many trees they came – the pig, the wallaby, the cassowary and the dog. As they gathered, the old man of the village spoke:

We are all tired“, he said, „of eating uncooked food. And we shiver when the rains come and the winds at night blow cold from the mountains. Oh, people of the forest and the long grass, we want you to help us (F 51). Who will go and get the fire that Haiavaha guards?“

But the pig, the cassowary and the wallaby had their excuses why they could not go and do it…only the dog was left. He sat there, short-haired, reddish-brown and with a pointed nose. „Dog“, said the old man, and the dog looked up. Oh, dog, you are our last hope. These others are too afraid but you are brave and clever; will you go and get the fire for us?“

I will try“, said the dog, „and I might manage it if only I can keep my mouth shut, but I so often want to howl and I must be quiet…“

Into the forest he went and up the mountain-side, beyond the trees and through the tall grass until close to the edge of a clearing he stopped and thrust his pointed nose out from the grass.There was the fire and there was Haiavaha nodding; he was asleep. The dog stifled a howl of delight and crept silently in, grabbed the firestick in his jaws and ran. Then Haiavaha awoke and reached after him with his long arms, but they were now too short. The dog was away and as he run he shouted back , „I have your fire, Haivaha, I have your fire. Why did you sleep , oh foolish one?“

Then down the hill he came, running in triumph, and the village people shouted with joy as they saw him break from the forest with the fire stick blazing in his jaws.

The fire, the fire, at last we have the fire,“ they cried. „Now we can cook our food and warm our bodies in the heat and never more be cold at night. We have the fire but what shall we do for the dog who brought it?“

This we will do, my people,“ said the wise old man. „We will make him one of us and at night he will sleep by the fire he brought.“

So they built the second ladder that the dog might come into the house and share its comfort with his friends.

To conclude this excurse into the spiritual (and real) world of Papuan tribal people I select one myth from the Wiram language group of the Trans – Fly region (WILLIAMS1936, pp. 387 – 389). It illustrates the intimate association of the dog in Papuan traditional believes and in daily real life perforance. It also indicates the antiquity of that unique bond which evolved between these two species, dog and man, on the level of tribal communal organisation.

The Wiram point to a locality named Gukabi near the Fly River as being the original home of Sami, the First Man. Associated with him is another man named Gwavi. I now quote F.E. Williams (F52): „They are engaged in felling an enormous tree … in order to make a dugout canoe. Hitherto there has been no water at Gukabi; but, when the tree finally falls, the branches somehow make a number of holes which become filled with good water. Sami and Gwavi, however, remain ignorant of this, and proceed to the hollowing and shaping of the tree trunk, becoming very thirsty with their hard work. In the meantime Sami’s dog Diari, finds the water and drinks, returning to his master with a wet muzzle. Twice this happens, and Sami is annoyed to think that his dog can drink while he and his friend go thirsty. When it happens a third time he gives Diari a beating, upon which the dog runs away …

The dog Diari runs away to Wemkungiu, apparently to the north of Gukabi, and far away in the bush … When Diari reached the village he found it empty, all the people being away hunting. So he climbed a tree, just as a lizard might, and lay there to watch and wait. By and by the huntsmen began to return, carrying wallabies slung from their shoulders. They were „“bad““ or ugly people, with crooked limbs. Diari watched them enter their houses one by one, but when the last of them arrived and passed under the tree, he leapt down on his shoulders, bit his head off and run for home.

Nearing Gukabi he buried the head in the mound of a shrub–hen some distance away, and then approached his master. Sami was weeping over what he thought the loss of his dog; but when the dog actually appeared he was so startlet by the blood dripping from his muzzle that he attempted to drive it away again. Diari, however, was not to be denied. He procured a bamboo knife from Sami’s bag and, whining in a most conciliatory manner, came up and placed it on his knee. This was meant to be used in skinning the head with a view to stuffing it. But Sami could not take the hint; greatly perplexed, he brushed the knife aside.

Meanwhile the head, buried in the scrub–hen’s mound, was undergoing a transformation. The tongue protruding from the open mouth began to sprout; the head turned turned into a coco–nut; and in a miraculous short time there stood on the spot a palm in full bearing.

The fallen nuts were already beginning to sprout when Diari came to see them. He took one and brought it to his master, then got a cassowary–bone dagger from his bag and placed it on his knee. Sami was greatly alarmed by the coco-nut, the like of which he had never seen before; but the dog gave him to understand that he must husk it and break it with the bone dagger. He was still more alarmed when it smashed with a loud noice; but the dog drank of the fluid and ate some of the nut, and after that Sami was sufficiently reassured to sample them himself. Then he was led to the place where all the nuts were lying, and realized that he had a new kind of food at his disposal.

Now the two friends Sami and Gwavi fell to work on their canoe again. Sami, it appears, was doing most of the work, while Gwavi was taking an unnecessarily long spell, sitting on his heels upon the tree trunk with his knees stretched wide apart. As Sami was working towards him with his stone axe, the head suddenly flew off and struck Gwavi between his legs, cutting off his penis and penetrating his body. Do all he could, Sami was unable to pull it out, so he carried the wounded man to his house and told him to wait. Then he split open another coco-nut and gave him some to eat: Gwavi thereupon developed a pair of breasts, the axe-head disappeared, and he became the first woman.

Sami now went on with adzing his great canoe, and in due course the time arrived when he had to turn it over in order to work on the other side. He found his strength unequal to the task and cried in despair, „“Alas, for men to help me!““ As he said this all the sprouting coco-nuts set up a shout and turned into human beings. The place was suddenly full of them, men, women, and children, who discovered that the they were fathers and mothers, wives, children, brothers-in-law, and so on, to one another. With one accord they set to work on the canoe and finished it.

Now it is dragged down to the river-bank for launching. (Hitherto there has been no mention of a river, but we must take its existence for granted.) The dog Diari has taken his place in the middle of the canoe. As it is dragged along he sets up a dog’s howl; and the workers set up a howl in response, when suddenly the canoe rises on end and begins to mount into the sky. The men hang on with all their might but they are unable to hold it down, and finally it floats beyond their reach. Meanwhile Sami and Gwavi have been sitting apart with their heads bent down. Now they build a high platform and embark upon the floating canoe together with some of their people, and then it begins to raise in earnest. Those who remain on earth raise their voices, throw clouds of dust into the air, and build a great fire. The answering shouts from the canoe grow fainter and fainter; it is obscured in the clouds of dust and smoke, and finally fades completely out of sight and hearing.

At the present day the great canoe stretches across the heavens from East to West, from one horizon to the other. I could not find out that it was identified with any constellation or with the Milky Way: my informants persisted that the canoe and the dog, who remains at the zenith, were alike invisible.“ (end of quote from WILLIAMS 1936, pp. 387 – 389).

I am just wondering whether Diari might not descend again from cruising the skies. So watch out, you believers in the kennel club ideals: Diari might just bite off your heads …and that is the end to our story about Papuan dogs.

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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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