Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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E. Adaptation and Differentiation


During my extensive travels in both Papua New Guinea and in West Papua (cf. Personal introduction) I learnt to distinguish different dog populations, by their phenotypical appearance. In addition I searched through early travel books for photographs of dogs. In two particular areas: the Papuan Gulf District and the Mt. Bosavi region further inland I documented local knowledge about dogs and collected skulls and body adornments made of dog teeth. For instance, 14 skulls were acquired in 1966 in the Kaluli and Waragu villages north of Mt. Bosavi in 1966 and closer studied at Munich University (BOESSNECK and MEYER – LEMPPENAU 1969). Two live dogs from the Papuan Gulf (Gope ethnic district) were brought to Munich in 1966 and 1968 respectively (cf. chapter F). Throughout my field work I was taking photographs, later also video shots and some sound recordings. A selection of the pictures is presented here for the first time.

Except for the very remote Mt. Bosavi study area, inter-breeding with recently introduced dogs from various European origins had largely disrupted the endemic strain continuity prior to my studies. Especially in all coastal areas investigated I was able to spot only a few animals which had kept their traditional appearance. I had no introduction to this lowland strain prior to my first journey in 1959. So I formed a picture according to similarities as they became evident throughout the populations observed ( cf. photographs). Of the highland dogs, I saw the original Hallstrom pair at Sydney zoo in 1959, and in 1965 I photographed the breeding colony at Melbourne zoo (fig. 1).

General observations:

No correlation was found between ethnic grouping and the appearane of endemic dogs. With the exception of the dogs photographed by Barry Craig in the Idam Valley of the upper Sepik region (figs. 43, 44), referred to in chapter C. For instance, the coastal dog populations of the Roro Melanesians west of Port Moresby, of the Papuan Gulf tribes between the Purari Delta and the Fly River estuary, as well as along the Gulf of Berau in southern West Papua and on the Raja Ampat Archipelago off Sorong, appeared largely identical. Equally, dogs in the highlands at such distant places like the PNG Southern Highlands, the Eipomek Valley and the Wissel Lakes in West Papua share a peculiar dog strain. It is the one from which the NGSD originated.

On the other hand, general phenotyp differences become evident when distinct climatic zones are compared: the coastal lowland areas, the inland hill country and the central highlands. So I assume that environmental factors have had a significant role in shaping the various endemic strains of Papuan dogs, after their arrival on New Guinea. Details will be presented further below, but for a first assessment the reader may compare the respective photographs (figs. 3,4; fig: 8 ff: and fig. 51 ff.)

All native Papuan dogs share certain morphological and behavioural patterns. However, I have no comparative data on hand for the genetic peculiarities (mtDNA) and anatomy, because only the highland dogs so far were recognized and included in scientific studies.The measurements of the Bosavi skulls (in BOESSNECK and MEYER – LEMPPENAU 1969) still remain isolated, because we lack sufficient data from other Papuan populations. Besides, just one parameter like the skull measurements may be insufficient for distinguishing different strains, as can be seen from this example: The examiners (F26) were not able to identify among the 14 individual Bosavi skulls the existence of two distinct varieties of dogs as I observed them live on the same location (cf. photos).It should be noted in this context that all the archaic, so called primitive and rightly termed „general“ dogs (including pariah and shensi strains, cf. BOESSNECK and MEYER- LEMPPENAU loc. cit.) share phenonotypical characters even without close „blood kinship“, without phylogenetic affinities to a grade as might be presumed from their very similiar appearance.

A striking characteristic of Papuan dogs is their vocalization. The howling and other vocalizations as listed for the so called „Singers“ (cf. chapter Strains and Breeds) are a common behaviour also in other regions of New Guinea (cf. STERLY 1962; quotes from various sources further below). I recorded on tape the male dog shown in photograph… at Tutugu village on the Kikori River of the Papuan Gulf as well as Bosavi dogs (for these locations see below). It should be mentioned that also interbred dogs adopt the habit of howling. So the majority of Papuan dogs even nowadays with all the interchange of genes retains this communal behaviour: usually one dog starts and then the others join in the chorus. After we had brought the Papuan Gulf dog „Sobi“ to Germany she adopted regular barking from our male Boxer „Greif“ and probably also from other dogs in the neighbourhood – and the Boxer again adopted howling – a funny sight to watch. So I assume that the frequency of expressing howling or barking is rather a tradition and not exclusively fixed in the genetic disposition. A man at Aimahe village of the Kerewo people in the western Papuan Gulf indicated that barking is not entirely absent; it was introduced by dogs brought from the town of Port Moresby. So probably both barking and howling are related to genetic dispositions in the domestic dog: but which one of these vocalizations is being expressed may well be to an undetermined extent a matter of individual mood as well as tradition, hence also a result of selective husbandry over long periods of time. At given occasions these behaviours may be displayed both by the same individual. Under this aspect the remarks about vocal tract anatomy of the NGSD (FEINSTEIN et al. 2001) should be reconsidered.

Some dogs in the Papuan Gulf region are said by the locals to be mute from birth.

One should bear in mind that the social function of howling and that of barking are not identical: (Chorus) howling has an intra–group function of socializing and expressing common conditions of mood (cf. the observations of U. Duerst in KOPPERS 1942; F27). Also single individuals of modern dog breeds howl, if left alone at home. Barking, on the other hand, is rather part of the guarding behaviour and giving alarm as a watchdog; so it was possibly promoted in that respect in selective breeding over long periods of time. But it remains unknown to what extent the frequency of regular barking as expressed by recent dog breeds is a result of intended selection by man that is now genetically fixed. How deeply barking is rooted in modern dogs I observe regularly when my little non-pedigree Greek dog tries to suppress barking when something strange arises her alert and triggers her barking, a strange person approaching, for instance; even if I demand strictly she should stop barking, this vocalisation comes up like a hickup and she cannot control it in her alerted mood.

The potential disposition for barking in primitive dogs which howl (e.g. the Tutugu male dog, cf. above, fig. 03) is noticeable by their initial short sequence of staccato intonations – before drawing out the howling tone. And highly alerted village dogs emit such short-cut vocalizations also without any follow up howling tone. While hunting, Papuan dogs on the island of Batanta (Raja Ampat Archipelago) and elsewhere express a variety of excited high pitched vocalizations that remind of European hunting dogs chasing game. At the village these dogs howl in chorus (own observations during several visits 1995 – 1997). With barking these high pitched vocal expressions have in common the glottal stop character („staccato“ intonation) just mentioned. MOSZKOWSKI (1928, p. 63) notes that the dogs of the Koassa Papuans on the middle Mamberamo River (northern West Papua) are able to express various distinct vocalizions when holding a bush pig at bay. C.f. also the observations of WILLIAMSON (1912) in the Mafulu country (quote in chapter G Traditional Husbandry, section: Hunting practizes).

In one of the early travel books (STONE 1880, p. 94) I found this passage: The repetitive chanting of the natives at night, in the coastal area of the Central District of Papua „is often varied by the whining of a quantity of lean dogs, too uncivilized to bark. Their noice is hideous, as though they were being thrashed by sticks, and when one commences all the rest join in. I know of no race of human beings unable to speak, and when I first heard of a class of dogs unable to bark, I was exceedingly incredulous, for I imagined both equally natural gifts. But these animals can only whine and yelp, and this they do in the most piteous tones imaginable.“

One more brief quote, from BUTCHER 1963, p. 64: referring to the region of the Fly River estuary:“ The village dogs „seldom bark, and their finest musical effort is a long, plaintive howl that fills the air with resounding horror, for when it starts, all the rest follow, until a hundred sharp noses are lifted skywards as all join in the chorus.“

For over six months in total I watched myself the daily performance of village dogs in coastal settlements of the Papuan Gulf of southern New Guinea. The majority of village dogs in this vast delta region of several large rivers now consists of introduced and interbred stock, But I could not spot any peculiar differences in general behaviour. One gets the impression that the introduced dogs had „gone native“: all the village dogs adapted to the specific living conditions in an equal way, except for some limitations due to abnormal body size and proportions of modern dogs: for instance too short legs or too heavy build for climbing adequately well the ladders up to houses on stilts, walking through the ubiquitous mud or croaching into the narrow space of canoes (cf. photos). But local people value true native dogs clearly higher than the introduced stock, and in fact the local strain individuals are superior in their qualities in hunting, for instance. The traditional habits apparently were forwarded by the native dogs or imposed by the people’s customs; the selective process in local populations involves both the traditions of fellow dogs and those of the resident people. And there appears to exist a greater continuity of behavioural patterns as compared with morphological features also in recent times – an indication that most if not all these behavioural characteristics are not genetically fixed but rather forwarded by the link of tradition.

On the other hand I must refer in this context to my earlier remark which will be supported by details when describing regional differences: ecological conditions had a considerable influence on the appearance of native dog strains; for that adaptive selection process one has to consider the long periods of time since their local introduction – thousands of years.

Only the latter adaptations to the environment being manifested in the morphology are genetically fixed. They evolved by the selection of mutations. The large amount of traditions, however, is only forwarded in the population by individual encounters which establish a continuity of adopted behavioral patterns. Once there occurs a break in communication over contemporary generations or a dramatic change of behaviour due to imported patterns of overwhelming significance, the respective traditions vanish. It seems that the traditions in village dog behaviour persisted after the import of European breeds, because there was a continuity of the communal coherence within the villages.

One should bear in mind that both the people and the dogs belong to communal species which possess the ability to establish unique bonds between the members of the own community, through the physiological process of „communalisation“ (SCHULTZE-WESTRUM 1974; F28). Traditional animal husbandry was only feasible because adopted behaviours of the animal species concerned and the human species were interlinked over the uninterrupted sequence of countless generations. The communal factors involved were instrumental both in the adoption and the maintenance of those traditional patterns.It is a characteristic of tribal traditions that they are retained once established, over considerable periods of time. Those traditional attitudes, habits, rules and performances are categorically different from the standards and behaviours in our urbanized society.

Papuan dogs were used for hunting, throughout New Guinea, with only minor exceptions (e.g. Astrolabe Bay, cf. chapter G). Mostly for tracking and holding at bay feral pigs. Usually several dogs were on the chase forming a pack. Their excited, high pitch, short cut jelling could be heared over wide distances in the forest.

I am indepted to Dr. Barry Craig for kindly sending me his charming observation (F29):„In the Idam valley (a southern tributary of the upper Sepik, located south of Green River) at the village of Bamblediam, in 1973, I witnessed a hunter about to go off into the forest and he was selecting which dogs to take with him. About a dozen or so dogs were gathered, obviously anticipating the fun of the chase, and the hunter called out a name and the dog would respond with enthusiasm, and after he had made his selection of about six dogs, he turned to go and the unselected dogs behaved and looked miserable! You could almost ‚hear‘ them saying, „Why can’t I go? I want to go too.“ I have a photograph of this event, though it includes only the dogs selected to go“ (photo).

This story (like others to be presented in chapter G), demonstrates that there existed and hopefully still is maintained a very close bond between people and dogs in New Guinea village communities. „Stone age“ tribes were well qualified to look after their dogs being perfect domestic animals (cf. F3), prior to the invasion of foreign breeds and life styles.

A few words about diseases:

In the Papuan Gulf region with its extremely moist tropical climate ( annual rainfall reaches almost 6 meters!), we found many dogs suffereing from ulcers, skin and venereal diseases. Presumably, most of these infections were introduced to the region by imported animals of modern breeds. Some individuals of European dogs with thick long hair (e.g. poodle-like dogs) suffered greatly in this extreme climate.

Numerous infestions by lung worms were stated by an Australian veterinary officer.

In the Bosavi area inland, a contagious disease had killed many, mostly juvenile dogs prior to our arrival in 1966 – that was the reason why we were able to assemble the 14 skulls referred to already. The dogs had been buried and were only excavated after we had offered – and paid for the first skull delivered – a brand new metal axe.

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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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