During the Black War, a period of violent conflict between the British colonists and First Nations people from 1824 to 1831 in northern Tasmania, a local newspaper told of how a British colonist’s body was found, missing his throat.
The newspaper reported that his throat had been eaten by quolls (known then as “native cats”).
Yes, you read that right. Quolls allegedly used to snack on human remains when scavenging got tough.
It is one of over 100 accounts of quolls feasting on human corpses between 1831 and 1961, discovered by David Peacock, University of Adelaide, over the course of a 12-year research project.
The findings tell us what life was like for both quolls and humans in Australia during that time.
A gruesome past
When speaking to ABC Radio Hobart earlier this week, Dr Peacock said the details were not for the faint of heart.
“During my research over the last 12 years I found over 100 accounts of quolls eating human corpses — including infants — detailed in the local newspapers … the details were quite gory!”
While it had been known for some time that quolls, which are carnivorous marsupials, are good scavengers, the discovery that they were also scavenging human corpses reflects the difference in living conditions back then.
Many of the accounts Dr Peacock found happened in Victoria, New South Wales, and even some in Tasmania. They were often referenced in winter when times were likely tough for humans).
“We found the accounts happened during times when we didn’t have a lot of social structure and support systems,” he said.
“The accounts detailed swagmen, convicts, and miners — anyone who came down on their luck during that time really – who may have died out in the bush. And often, the quolls got to them first.”
Dr Peacock said previous research by Menna Jones, a professor at the University of Tasmania, had helped inform his own findings.
“Ms Jones found during her research that in some instances quolls would scavenge after a Tasmanian devil had opened up a carcass.
From pest to sparse
David Hamilton, an ecologist with the University of Tasmania, said Dr Peacock’s findings reflected a time in Australia when the quoll population thrived.
“It may be morbid, but it’s nice to know it was happening regularly because it reflects a healthy quoll population back then,” he said.
Dr Hamilton added he was surprised to read that the quolls were particular about what they feasted on when it came to human remains.
“It’s pretty cool that the quolls were nibbling on just certain parts of the human remains, as opposed to properly hooking into them,” he said.
One notable account from Dr Peacock’s findings included the discovery of Sergeant Michael Kennedy’s body in Victoria’s Wombat Ranges.
Sergeant Kennedy had been shot by the Ned Kelly gang and, if that wasn’t unlucky enough, according to Dr Peacock’s research, the quolls found him too.
“One ear was gone. I imagined it had been gnawed away by native cats (quolls). The body was very much decomposed,” it read in the local newspaper.
While gruesome, Dr Peacock’s research reflected a stark difference in attitudes towards the quoll population compared to present day.
“They had no love for them back then,” he said.
While most of the accounts are circumstantial, one in Sale, Victoria, referenced a police officer finding a dead body surrounded by up to seven quolls who ran away when he approached.
“The officer actually saw them run away from the corpse and into a hollow tree, so he burnt the tree to the ground!” Dr Peacock said.
For a species once viewed as a pest due to their abundant numbers, their situation today couldn’t be more different.
An uncertain future
Eastern quolls are now extinct on the mainland, and their numbers have been declining in recent years here in Tasmania, Dr Hamilton said.
“I feel like it has gone under the radar, in areas like the Central Highlands and the east coast quoll populations have really declined – it’s a concerning pattern,” he added.
If quolls are to have a future in Tasmania, the state’s “terrible roadkill rate needs to be addressed,” he said.
While Dr Peacock said he hoped to never see quolls chew on human corpses again, he would like to see their healthy numbers return.
“We’ve recently found success during our quoll reintroduction program in the Flinders Ranges by baiting feral cats,” Dr Peacock told ABC Radio Hobart.
Dr Hamilton said after reading Dr Peacock’s work he would have a new perspective on the quolls he encountered in Tasmania’s wilderness.
“Sometimes when I release the quolls in the field, they will actually look back at you as they’re being released into the bush.
“Now I’ll be wondering if they’re eyeing me up!” he said.
Haunting, to say the least.
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