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 stamped out by Portuguese colonizers by 1912. The local Tetum language also reflects this connection, as the word "asuwa'in" refers to both a victorious cock and someone who has beheaded an enemy. 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 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.
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.