folder Filed in Chile, Food, History, Polynesia
Cooking Cuscus, But Not the Kind You're Thinking About
H.D. Miller comment 4 Comments access_time 10 min read

I like to read and I like to chase after odd bits of knowledge. For example, when I was in Chiloé, the island off the coast of southern Chile, our guide claimed that curanto, the Chilote version of a pit bake, was brought to the island by ancient Polynesians, to which I replied, ORLY?


A curanto on the island of Chiloé: shellfish, sausage, smoked pork, and potatoes, all cooked in a hole in the ground

I was skeptical because stories of Polynesian visits to the west coast of South America have been floating around since Europeans first began to encounter Polynesians in the late 17th century. Indeed, such stories once had the power to send photogenic Norwegians off on harebrained voyages. But, last I’d checked, a dozen years or more ago, such stories had been largely discounted by the professional archeologists.

But, off I went, scampering after updated information about the settlement of the Polynesian triangle (i.e. New Zealand, Hawa’ii, and Rapa Nui). It turns out that there’s a lot more to some of those old stories than I thought. For example, it seems likely that Polynesians got the sweet potato, one of their staple crops, from the Americas via an early contact. And the old story about domesticated chickens (a South Asian bird) being found in South America when the conquistadors arrived is getting another look. There’s even a serious expedition to look for evidence of contact starting up on the Isla Mocha, a little bit further up the Chilean coast from Chiloé.

So, while our guide wasn’t yet proven right, he might not have been entirely wrong. The jury is still out.


The Polynesian Triangle: Like the Bermuda Triangle only with Samoans and pineapples.

The reason for all of these new discoveries is better technology for DNA sequencing. While hunting around, I came across a fascinating book, DNA for Archeologists, by Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith and K. Ann Horsburgh, who are at Otago University in New Zealand. (Matisoo-Smith is the person leading the project to study the Isla Mocha). The book explains, in remarkably clear terms, how archeologists can use improved genetic-mapping technology. Here’s the description of the book:

The ability to use DNA evidence is revolutionizing our understanding of the past. This book introduces archaeologists to the basics of DNA research so they can understand the powers and pitfalls of using DNA data in archaeological analysis and interpretation. By concentrating on the principles and applications of DNA specific to archaeology, the authors allow archaeologists to collect DNA samples properly and interpret the laboratory results with greater confidence. The volume is replete with case examples of DNA work in a variety of archaeological contexts and is an ideal teaching tool for archaeologists and their students.

This is a theme I touch upon in my World Civ I classes, that DNA evidence has radically changed our understanding of our prehistoric past. Until recently (by which I mean the last decade) archeologists and anthropologists did not have anything half as accurate or half as direct as DNA evidence, and so they developed proxies for understanding ancient human migrations. The best example comes from linguists, where something like the spread of Indo-European languages can be used to roughly track the movement of the Indo-European peoples out of the supposed Urheimet, on the Pontic steppe.


Without DNA evidence, earlier archeologist relied partially on linguistic evidence to theorize about population movements.

As you would imagine, there are a lot of fundamental problems with such an approach, although it’s a remarkably clever way of addressing a remarkably difficult problem.

Now, thanks to DNA, we can go at some of these problems head on, and we’re learning some interesting things as a result, things which comes as a complete surprise to me. Here’s Matisoo-Smith and Hursburgh again:

While most human codispersals are associated with humans moving domesticated animals such as dogs, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, plants and other organisms by or in association with human populations. Studies of these species have been most valuable for tracking prehistoric human migration and interaction, particularly when humans translocated species to regions where they would have been unable to disperse independently, such as the movement of animals across islands. Accordingly, islands provide excellent environments across which to track the movement of plants and animals. Tracing their human-mediated movement across continents is more difficult. The study of the distributions and genetic variation of animals and plants and their use as proxies for tracking human movement has most widely been applied in the Pacific but is increasingly being undertaken elsewhere.

Get that? Even if you can’t find prehistoric human DNA, you can often find prehistoric DNA from domesticated animals. Find a heap of old pig bones buried in a cave, take a DNA sample, and see what they’re related to. Do they correspond to domesticated breeds found elsewhere in the world, and if so how did they get where you found them? Polynesia islands are really good for this sort of study, because pigs can’t swim across the Pacific Ocean.

So far, so good. Nothing I didn’t already know in a general sort of way. And then, in the next paragraph, they drop this (to me) bombshell:

The earliest documented human translocation of an animal species anywhere in the world substantially predates the earliest evidence for animal domestication and involved the introduction of the northern common cuscus (Phalanger orientalis) from New Guinea to New Ireland approximately 20 KYA (Grayson 2001).

And this is why it’s good to read outside of your discipline, because you learn things that completely upset what you thought you had known.


The common spotted cuscus, both cute and edible.

Last time I’d checked, the dog (our first non-human companion) was domesticated only 13,000 years ago (although I see now that some scholars are claiming 33,000 years ago). The big news to me is that 20,000 years ago prehistoric humans grabbed some wild animals, specifically a cat-sized marsupial called the cuscus, tossed them on rafts, floated across a hundred miles of open ocean, and then released them into the wild.

This, that human moved animals around in the late Pleistocene, is something I had not expected or understood, although this process has been well-known to specialists for at least 30 years, even before high-quality DNA testing was available. Here’s a pdf of the paper from University of Washington anthropologist Donald Grayson that Matisoo-Smith and Horsburgh cited in that last excerpt. It’s an interesting read, especially if you’re unfamiliar with this theory. Here’s another excerpt:

While translocations began during the Pleistocene, however, those that occurred during the Holocene have had the most impact. On the islands of the Mediterranean, for instance, endemic terrestrial mammal faunas were routinely replaced by mammals introduced by people (Cheylan, 1984). On Corsica, to take a very well-studied example, the seven or so species of mammals that were present at the end of the Pleistocene gave way to a suite of mammals, large and small, that began to arrive soon after 9000 B.P. with the earliest documented human occupations here. This process has been so thorough throughout the Mediterranean that only two, relictual Pleistocene species remain, both of which are shrews (Blondel and Vigne, 1993; see also Payne, 1995 and Alcover et al., 1999).

Corisica, too? All I have to say is, why wasn’t I told about this sooner?

How (and Why) to Cook a Cuscus

Finally, since this is a culinary history blog, I thought it’d be interesting to see how to cook a cuscus (pronounced cuss-cuss, after the way they hiss when threatened). Now native from Indonesia, to Papua New Guinea, down through northern Australia, the cuscus is the marsupial equivalent of a primate, sort of lemur or loris with a pouch, occupying the same evolutionary niche in the tropical rainforest . They’re also one of the favorite foods of native peoples throughout their range, who hunt them for both their soft fur and their toothsomeness.

As an older version of the Lonely Planet Guide to East Timor says, “unfortunately for the cuscus, for the Timorese it’s usually associated with one adjective: delicious.”

Westerners who’ve tried cuscus report that it’s not bad. For example, the Victorian writer of boy’s adventure storiess, W.H.G. Kingston,  writes in his 1871 book, In the Eastern Seas: Or the Regions of the Bird of Paradise,

At first I had some repugnance to eating a new animal. However, the steaks which Macco cut from the creature’s fat sides looked so tempting that I did not refuse to portion he offered me, and found it very delicate.

Likewise, the Dutch zoologist Leo Brongersma reports,

I had the experience of eating a small piece of cuscus meat and it proved quite palatable. It had been stewed in its skin to prevent the loss of any of its juice.

Stewed in its skin is probably a euphemism for the easiest way to cook a cuscus, which is to just, “lob it on the fire,” a specialty of Papua New Guinea cuisine, a method of cooking that seems to be used there for anything smaller than a pig. According to the Victorian naturalist, Henry Nottidge Moseley,

The cuscus is also roasted, and is carried about cold, roasted whole with head, tail, and legs intact, ready for eating by tearing it with the teeth at any moment.

So, the cuscus is a portable snack, toted around and noshed on when needed.

One other method of preparation is noted in Papua New Guinea: placing a skinned cuscus in a bamboo tube with a little water, sealing it and putting it near the fire, effectively steaming the meat.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find any Indonesian, or Timorese recipes, although I suspect that there are some good ones.

Finally, the most amazing thing about the spotted cuscus is that it is not the least bit endangered. We’ve been eating it for more than 20,000 years and it seems to be doing just fine. It’s a tasty, widely-hunted, slow-moving animal with little fear of humans that seems to be thriving in its native habitat.

  1. Surely we can extrapolate a recipe based upon available ingredients and cooking methods through observance of indigenous practices? And if said recipe comes to the table please reserve a seat for me. Great article, thank you. I have book marked your website.

    1. If I knew Bahasa or Malay, I bet I could find a good recipe for cuscus curry, or noodle cuscus.

  2. Yes, but what shoes to wear the first time we munch a new mammal. Or marsupial.

Comments are closed.