The cassowary, possible first bird raised by humans 18,000 years ago

With all due respect to the Saint-Cyrians, who named their red and white plume headdress with his name, the cassowary remains first and foremost a bird.

An impressive creature, which can reach 75 kg and 1.80 m. Its black feathers almost hold the hair. Its head, brown helmet, green nape, red wattles hanging from its blue neck, seem to come out of another era, like a reminder that birds are what remains of dinosaurs.

The port and the gait display a real majesty, a quiet strength. “He’s pretty shy,” says Kristina Douglass of Pennsylvania State University. But if he is attacked, he becomes fierce. Its 12 cm claw, like a dagger, can eviscerate any target. “

But thousands of years ago, humans couldn’t care less about the dangers these birds posed and raised them to near-adulthood, possibly making the cassowary the first bird managed by humans, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The study says that cassowaries are more like velociraptors than chickens, but they have one trait that made it possible to be raised by humans: imprinting, meaning the bird assumes the first thing it sees when it hatches is its mother and will follow it everywhere.

But this wasn’t the only thing humans were doing with these birds and their eggs; they were also eating them.

Douglass and her team examined over 1,000 cassowary eggshell fragments that ranged from 6,000 to 18,000 years old using 3D laser microscopes. The results showed that some eggs harvested were broken prematurely, meaning people were eating developing egg embryos, a practice also known as balut in southeast Asia. However, evidence suggests that some of these eggs were also taken to be harvest and eventually raised by humans.

“We also looked at burning on the eggshells,” said Douglass. “There are enough samples of late-stage eggshells that do not show burning that we can say they were hatching and not eating them.”

However, there is still much the researchers don’t know.

To successfully hatch and raise cassowary chicks, people would need to know where the nests were, know when the eggs were laid and remove them from the nest just before hatching. This is no easy feat as birds don’t nest at the same sites each year. Once a female lays the eggs, male birds take over nest duty and don’t leave for 50 days while incubating the eggs.

“People may have hunted the male and then collected the eggs. Because males don’t leave the nest unattended they also don’t feed much during the incubation period making them more vulnerable to predators,” Douglass said.

Sources:

https://www.pnas.org/content/118/40/e2100117118

https://www.lemonde.fr/sciences/article/2021/10/03/le-casoar-possible-premier-oiseau-eleve-par-les-humains_6096965_1650684.html