Unearthed in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, this ancient stone image may represent the head of the cassowary, an ostrichlike bird. Among many contemporary New Guinea peoples, the cassowary is regarded as a supernaturally powerful animal and this image indicates that such beliefs possibly extend far into prehistory. This head is one of a variety of stone objects produced throughout the New Guinea Highlands by an as yet unidentified prehistoric culture. To date, no examples have been excavated in controlled archaeological contexts, and their exact age and original functions remain unknown. Discovered by chance while gardening or rooted up by foraging pigs, such stone images are regarded by contemporary Highland peoples as the work of spirits. Endowed with powerful magic, the ancient images are reused in a number of ritual contexts, including hunting and farming magic, healing, and deadly forms of sorcery. The red ocher pigment on the surface of this example was probably applied in historic times, when the object was reused in a contemporary ritual context.
[Henri Kamer, Paris and New York, until 1966]; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1966–1978
Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 192.
Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, 14, 45-7.