These ferocious, flightless fowl were once both pets and food to people.
Appearing more like a giant, feathered reptile than a chicken, the cassowary is arguably the most dangerous bird in the world — and humans used to raise it to eat its young, a new study has revealed.
According to new research published this month in the journal PNAS, 18,000 years ago people may have collected cassowary eggs, hatched them, raised the dagger-toed birds to adulthood — and then feasted on their offspring before it had fully developed.
“This behavior that we are seeing is coming thousands of years before domestication of the chicken,” said Penn State assistant professor of anthropology and lead study author Kristina Douglass in a press release. “And this is not some small fowl, it is a huge, ornery, flightless bird that can eviscerate you. Most likely the dwarf variety that weighs 20 kilos (44 pounds).”
Douglass and her fellow authors determined this by 3D imaging and analyzing over 1,000 pieces of fossilized eggshells they found at two separate sites in New Guinea.
“What we found was that a large majority of the eggshells were harvested during late stages,” said Douglass, implying that chicks were either being hatched or consumed as baluts, a “nearly developed embryo chick usually boiled and eaten as street food in parts of Asia.”
Cassowaries — which are not, in fact, chickens and bear more of a resemblance to velociraptors — still roam the Earth, although have obviously fallen out of favor for consumption to the far less deadly and now very much domesticated chicken.
Despite being more akin to the beasts of yore, the flightless birds have an Achilles’ heel which makes them easily domesticated: It turns out cassowary “imprint readily to humans,” as the birds consider whatever the first thing they see after birth to be their mother. “If that first glance happens to catch sight of a human, the bird will follow the human anywhere,” explained the release.
In 2019, cassowaries made headlines not for their use to ancient people but for killing a Florida man who was keeping the species as pets. The murderous cassowary was subsequently purchased at auction.
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