Cassowaries are close to being the oldest living descendants of dinosaurs — not the big ones like diplodocus, but the fast ones like the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park.” They are rattites, which means they have no keelbone in their breasts — the anchor-point for the broad wings that allow eagles and geese to fly. Cassowaries like emus and ostriches, are without wings fit for flight. They look a little bit like guinea fowl on steroids, which is natural since they are found in New Guinea these days. The rattites evolved in Gonwandaland, the continent that pre-existed what today is South America, Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica, India, other parts of South Asia, and Australia. At one time it even included Florida and most of Southern Europe. “Science tells us that the Continents of Australia, India, South America, Africa, and Antarctica, existed together as a separate landmass as long as 650 million years ago. And as these continents only began to break up some 130 million years ago, this great supercontinent had a life of around 520 million years; making it perhaps the most important geological structure of the last billion years.”
Dinosaurs crashed about 65 million years ago. By that time Gonwandaland had reconfigured very slowly but quite a lot, changing ocean currents — which changed weather — and slowly separating in some places while staying attached in others, so that the evolution of those animals stayed connected as well. But the evolutionary paths were QUITE different, as platypuses, kangaroos and koalas demonstrate.
The inhabitants of the little complex of villages studied by a man named Andrew Gell in the 1960’s didn’t know anything about this plate tectonic geological history, but they knew a lot about today’s cassowary. The bird lives in jungle, has a five-inch blade of a claw, and can disembowel an adult human. They are the second biggest bird on the planet (after ostriches) and the third tallest. (After ostriches and emus.) So elusive that they can stand within a few feet without a person realizing it and then slip away without ever being sensed, they sometimes go on reckless crashing flights through the thick tropical growth, even smashing headlong into tree trunks, achieving speeds of over thirty mph and jumping five feet in the air. They are good swimmers.
A cassowary might be five and a half feet tall and weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, roughly the size of a sow grizzly. Like grizzlies, they are frugiverous (they love to eat fruits) and are interwoven with the forest in part because their droppings distribute the seeds of the plants (well-fertilized) over a wide area. Unlike grizzlies, cassowaries lay three to eight pale aqua eggs at a time, each one three and a half by five and a half inches. “The female does not care for the eggs or the chicks; the male incubates the eggs for two months, then cares for the brown-striped chicks for nine months, defending them fiercely against all potential predators, including humans.” And that scourge of wilderness, pigs.
On the tops of their heads is a kind of callus structure that is evidently a sort of crash helmet. But they are also very aggressive, ferocious fighters, which might make a protection like that an attractively potent silhouette for the ladies. Birds seem to admire headgear (which is ironic since so many were almost stamped out when they became popular decorations for human ladies). One experimenter “helped out” a certain kind of songbird with a plume on its head by gluing on additions and then showing the augmented suitors to females. They became ever more attractive as, like Bartholomew Cubbins, their heads became more elaborate — until they could hardly hold their heads up. Google reports no athletic teams called “The Cassowaries” though one could easily imagine someone in a mascot suit disguised as a big aggressive bird with a helmet. (I note that there is no school mascot called the “The Pigs” either. “The Boars”? The Bores?)
New Guinea as it exists today is the product of a plate tectonic crash that left it with a miserable combination of swampy bug-ridden lowlands, tilted rocky foothills and highlands so tall that they cast their rain shadow over Australia, making it the fire-swept droughty continent that it is. The humans who live in New Guinea have a precarious existence, always on the verge of starvation. The people are among the last to be introduced to the contemporary world. One should not deduce from this that are not smart and resourceful — indeed the environment is so harsh that the weak and stupid don’t last long and Gell reports that no man was able to point to a grandson — only sons. Life was only two generations long.
When “law and order” arrived and dealt with a violent incident by removing the most aggressive men, some to prison and some to work on plantations, the seized men took note of the terrain through the airplane window as they were flown out — over two mountain ranges. In the new place they immediately escaped and headed home. Only a few achieved the goal but none were stupid nor weak — veritable cassowaries of men, single-minded. There are no athletic programs (instead of “modeling war,” they proceed straight to battle) or even schools to have mascots in remote New Guinea, but the men consciously identify with the monster birds. They feature largely in ceremonies.
My hypothesis is that meaningful ceremonies are as ecological as life itself is — that is, what people believe is true is very much shaped by the world around them. The efficacy of their symbols is directly drawn from their familiarity with the phenomena. “The Lamb of God” can hardly mean much to an Inuit, but it means a great deal to a sheep rancher who has delivered a real lamb, held it in his arms, and taken it to maturity. Still, raising a lamb in Mexico is different from raising a lamb in Montana or Australia. So knowing that a cassowary is a vital symbol to the Umeda tells us what they think the world and the sacred is “about.” As always, survival. But how? At what cost?
Today most people in the world are no longer “emplaced” as were the New Guinea tribesmen of the Sixties who had never left their valleys. Now we look at ecology on a cosmic scale and see relationships over incredible spans of time. In spite of Planet Earth images, we no longer have as rich tactile and concrete nourishing connections with the local ecology since we don’t know where our food was grown, what it looked like before it was picked or killed, what its habits were, its style, its charisma. But the Umeda knew cassowaries very well, especially how they tasted.