Tracing the Roots of Cockfighting in Timor-Leste
Cockfighting: A Cultural History
"Many people (including myself) think that cockfighting is an Austronesian custom that spread with Austronesian speakers who entered the islands bringing pottery and domestic animals at about 3500 years ago. It is widespread across the Wallacean Archipelago and seems to cross ethnic, religious and current linguistic boundaries."
Prof Susan O'Connor - Archaeologist / Professor of Archaeology and Natural History at Australian National University
The practice of cockfighting in Timor-Leste has a rich cultural history dating back centuries, although the exact origins of the sport are uncertain.
The Lene Hara cave in East Timor's Lautém District is a significant archaeological site, providing evidence of human occupation dating back 35,000 years. The cave was first investigated in 1963 by Portuguese anthropologist Antonio de Almeida, and later by an Australian National University team led by Sue O'Connor. Radiocarbon dating of shells found in the cave indicates habitation by transitory inhabitants starting at 35,000 years BP.
During reconnaissance over two field seasons in July-August 2000 and July-September 2001, nine painted rock art sites were located in Timor-Leste. The paintings in Ile Kere Kere are believed to be between 2,000 and 6,000 years old.
These rock art sites, found in caves, shelters, and cliff walls, document the lives of the communities that settled in or passed through Timor during successive migration routes within the region. This body of rock art comprises nearly 40 sites and features a diverse array of images, including human and animal figures, hunting scenes, everyday life, and cockfighting.
According to anthropologist David Hicks, the origins of cockfighting may be linked to a former Timorese practice of beheading rivals, which was eradicated by Portuguese colonizers by 1912. In the local Tetum language, this link is underscored by the term "asuwa'in", which denotes both a triumphant rooster and an individual who has beheaded an adversary
Hicks suggests that the shedding of blood, whether by roosters or enemies, is linked to ideas of fertility. From this perspective, cockfighting serves as a modern-day substitute for traditional man-to-man battles. Owners of fighting birds are known to be particularly passionate, often affectionately nuzzling and kissing their contestants, which is considered a symbol of masculinity.
According to Hicks, cockfighting plays a significant role in the coming of age ritual for young men in Timor-Leste. The tradition dictates that a father presents his son with a fighting cock during adolescence, signifying the boy's transition into manhood. The custom also dictates that until marriage, the young man's cock should not participate in competitions, as it was believed that shedding blood was reserved for headhunting and other adult responsibilities.
In addition, as per a lia na’in (a master or word holder in the local language), cockfighting also contributed to arranged marriages. If a tribal king rejected a marriage proposal from a man for his daughter due to class differences, a cockfight could be held to decide the outcome. If the man's rooster emerged victorious, the couple could marry. If the outcome was the opposite, they couldn't.
Also, due to the absence of a judicial system, cockfighting served as a means to resolve disputes among people and ensure peace in society. The winner in a cockfight also won in matters of justice. Furthermore, the game fostered camaraderie among the participants.
In cockfighting, the outcome is determined by one of two scenarios: the death or flight of one of the roosters. The rooster that either flees or dies is deemed the loser. The defeated bird is then handed over to the victor's owner for consumption.
During the time when Timor was under Portuguese colonial rule, the colonial government tried to end the deeply-rooted practice of cockfighting. However, they were unsuccessful. Instead of eradicating it, they sought to benefit by implementing a tax on the practice, turning it into a source of state revenue.
The significance of cockfighting in Timor-Leste extended beyond entertainment. During the Indonesian occupation, some within the Timorese resistance engaged in these fights, not just for symbolic representation but also as a way to lift the morale of the guerrillas. In these symbolic battles, a white rooster might represent the Indonesian forces, while a red rooster symbolized the Timorese fighters. While these contests bolstered morale and held symbolic significance, the exact influence they had on strategic decisions remains nuanced. In addition, sacrificial rituals involving roosters were performed, seeking divine and ancestral protection and guidance.
Adding to its cultural significance and status as a symbol of great cultural significance, some 'tais' designs prominently feature the cock (see examples here and here). Its depiction on both the coins (10 cêntimos) and the 50-centavo postal stamp, part of a set of four stamps issued on November 28, 2005, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, pays homage to this tradition and stands as a tribute to the resilience and courage of the Timorese people in their enduring fight for independence.
In present-day, cockfights are a traditional aspect of religious ceremonies and celebratory events, and are a significant contributor to the gaming industry in the country. In many cases, they are often the only source of work and income for many families.
There are several cockfighting venues in Dili, where the fights take place every day in the afternoon, ending when the night falls. Despite attracting a diverse crowd of men, women, and boys of all ages and backgrounds, it is still relatively rare to see women attend these events, which are usually organized and controlled by men.
While Timor-Leste is primarily a patriarchal society, and there is a prevailing belief that women's participation in such events should be limited, under the pretext that they may 'lose their dignity', it's important to note that not everyone shares this perspective.
Some individuals consider this game to be akin to a form of warfare, and traditionally, women do not participate in warfare. The majority of women in the cockfighting environment are often involved in commercial activities, such as selling food and beverages or engaging in local lottery sales, while occasional female participants may include curious foreigners.
The organization and tasks related to cockfighting, along with associated gambling rackets, are, in many cases, pivotal sources of income for those involved and often serve as the primary means to support their families. Notably, beyond the direct revenue from this form of gambling, there have been claims suggesting that the proceeds from cockfighting and related betting activities have been leveraged by some martial arts groups to fund their operations, further highlighting the deep-seated interplay between gambling in Timor-Leste and its larger socio-political landscape.
Cockfighting, despite its cultural significance, is not universally viewed in a positive light. A report by Phyllis Ferguson, a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme, conducted in 2012, highlighted the negative consequences of the sport and the gambling that often accompanies it. The report linked cockfighting to issues such as poverty and domestic violence.
As for its historical significance, the sport's popularity among younger generations in Timor-Leste has been declining in recent years, as they seek other forms of entertainment.