Asmat Art and Killer Birds

     My teenage nephews and I spend fun afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art whenever they come to the city to visit me.  One of our favorite places in the museum is the Oceania area.  It’s a gigantic, airy, space with a very high ceiling, so it can contain remarkable sculptures called mbis poles .


  The poles are fashioned by the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea to honor the dead.  The Asmat are fascinating people, with a history of headhunting  and cannibalism.  Since we really like the mbis poles and other Asmat stuff, like their slit gong, one of the largest percussion instruments in the world,

 we watched a documentary about the Asmat on CUNY tv.  I wish I could remember the name of the documentary.  Anyway, it was really compelling because it followed the story of an Asmat man named Rufius.  He wanted to get married, but before he could, he had to hunt and kill a bird called a cassowary.  The prospect  absolutely terrified Rufius, 

   The nephews and I were like, “why is Rufius so afraid of killing a bird?”  He was well- armed, and after all, it wasn’t a tiger or a lion, it was a bird.

   We watched, rapt, as Rufius set out through the forest to  stalk and finally come face to face with a cassowary.  The cassowary he found wasn’t even on the large size, for cassowaries, but it fought like a banshee.  Poor Rufius struggled to kill that ferocious bird and the bird turned itself into a blur of shriek and feathers before it finally sucumbed.  After a long battle, Rufius was victorious!  Then he was free to marry because he had proven himself to be a brave man, deserving of a wife.

  I’d never heard of this type of bird, so I did some research and was amazed to learn what I did about,





The Man-Killers


 of the Bird Kingdom




Photograph from The Cassowary website

According to Wikipedia

Cassowaries are native to New Guinea and Australia.

They are flightless.

They are BIG – third only to ostriches and emus – their average height between 5 and 6 feet tall.  The females are larger and more colorful than the males. Cool.

They are freaking OMNIVOROUS (mostly they eat fruit but, apparently,  they will eat anytheeng, including vertebrates).

They are shy, but have killed at least one (documented) human.

They have three claws on each foot – the middle claw is almost 5 inches long and it is “dagger-like”.

Cassowaries are really athletic – they can run through the forest at more than 30 mph and jump 5 feet into the air and they can swim too!

Do you see that freaky crest-thingy on the cassowary’s head?  The experts disagree as to its purpose, but it may promote cassowary communication since they can make a “boom” that is the lowest known bird call (humans can barely hear it).

Cassowaries can live for maybe 40 to 50 years.

Female cassowaries would be apt subjects for the Jerry Springer Show if they were modern-day human females – they lay eggs in one male cassowary’s  nest and then immediately move on to lay more eggs in another dude’s nest.

 Male cassowaries care for the eggs and raise the babies for nine months or more.  The males are fierce fathers and most cassowary attacks on humans are in defense of the nest. 

The Guiness Book lists the cassowary as “The Most Dangerous Bird in the World”.

These safety rules for human/cassowary encounters are from the website;

“Things to remember if you encounter a Cassowary:

1. Don’t tease or bother the bird. Back away quietly. Stay out of its way.

2. Don’t feed the bird. Feeding the bird makes it lose its natural shyness towards humans and can lead to aggressive attacks, provoked or unprovoked.

3. Drive slowly if the birds are near the road and keep the car-windows shut. Otherwise don’t linger to bird-watch and give them the chance to car-watch/man-watch. A Cassowary with a car/man watching hobby is liable to get itself killed in road accidents.

4. If you live in Cassowary country and own a dog, please keep it confined in your house or yard and always on a leash for walks. A loose dog, if it doesn’t get itself killed first, can either kill or wound a Cassowary or its young – a wounded Cassowary, especially one protecting its chicks, can be even more dangerous.”




2 Responses to “Asmat Art and Killer Birds”

  1. 1 Debbie November 7, 2011 at 2:14 am

    I have a great photo of me in a village in New Guinea with a cassowary. They are, indeed, very big and not very nice but they are very special. If any bird looks like a dinosaur, this is the it.

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