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Ancient people may have raised flightless birds that can 'slice open any predator'

The cassowary is a terror that can disembowel you, but studying fossil eggs suggest humans were hatching them 18,000 years ago.

A modern-day cassowary peers out of a box.

Andy Mack

Ostriches and emus are famously large flightless birds, but not everyone is familiar with the cassowary, a bird native to New Guinea and parts of Australia. Cassowaries can be aggressive and they a have a brutally sharp claw on each foot. But those downsides may not've stopped people from hatching and raising them 18,000 years ago.

Cassowary chicks are traded in modern times in some areas of New Guinea, a practice that may have some surprisingly early historical roots.  

"This behavior that we are seeing is coming thousands of years before domestication of the chicken," said archaeologist Kristina Douglass in a Penn State statement on Monday. "And this is not some small fowl, it is a huge, ornery, flightless bird that can eviscerate you."  

A team of researchers investigated eggshell fragments found at archeological sites in New Guinea that dated to between 6,000 and 18,000 years ago, back into the late Pleistocene era. The findings suggest the eggs that were close to hatching were gathered by human foragers.     

Douglass is the lead author of a study of the eggshells published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"What we found was that a large majority of the eggshells were harvested during late stages," said Douglass. "The eggshells look very late; the pattern is not random. They were either into eating baluts or they are hatching chicks." 

Admittedly, cassowary chicks are pretty cute.

Andy Mack

Baluts are fertilized eggs that are cooked and eaten when the embryo is developing. The researchers found enough samples of unburned eggshells to suggest the eggs were collected for hatching. The cassowary chicks would have imprinted on the humans. 

The exact nature of the potential human-cassowary relationship is unknown. The birds could've been raised to adulthood or been used for trading. It might've been the Pleistocene version of raising chickens. 

In case you're thinking about getting a cassowary for a pet, it's not a good idea. As the San Diego Zoo notes, "The cassowary can slice open any predator or potential threat with a single swift kick."