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A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  375 ratings  ·  75 reviews
As a young anthropologist, Don Kulick went to the tiny village of Gapun in New Guinea to document the death of the native language, Tayap. He arrived knowing that you can’t study a language without understanding the daily lives of the people who speak it: how they talk to their children, how they argue, how they gossip, how they joke. Over the course of thirty years, he re ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 18th 2019 by Algonquin Books
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Diane S ☔
Sep 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lor-2019, 5000-2019
As a young man, anthropologist, Don Kulick traveled to a small, very remote village in Papau New Guinea. He went to find the reason that their main language, Tayap was dying. Why it wasn't being used nor taught by the elders in the village. He would return several times over the years, some trips would last year's....He grew to like and respect many of those in this village, they even built a house for him. Of course, these villagers had few things, were rather poor and had some strange beliefs. ...more
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
This was a book that I found most fascinating, well written and informative. It should be of interest not only to linguists and anthropologists but to any reader wanting to discover a different way of life and culture in a remote corner of the world.

On a personal note, I travelled for weeks in the Indonesian controlled part of New Guinea, with a small group led by an anthropologist who took us to some seldom visited tribes, including ones who could only be reached by small boats or hiking thro
Bonnie Brody
May 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Don Kulick, an anthropologist and professor, first traveled to Gapun, New Guinea in 1986. Gapun is a very small village that is located in the tropical rainforest, aka the jungle. Mr. Kulick's primary purpose for visiting Gapun was to study the dying native language of Tayap. What he found was that that Tayap was being replaced by Tok Pisin, a semi-pigeon dialect picked up by the men of Gapun who had traveled outside of their village to work with English speaking white men. Parents were speaking ...more
An approachable work of nonfiction for anyone intrigued by the field of anthropology. Its success emerges from its nimble evasion of many of the recent postmodern pitfalls of anthropological study. Kulick opens with the usual spiel on relativism and privilege and biased observation, but he doesn’t let the impossibility of making an impartial inventory and analysis of this vastly different society stop him from trying. The work harkens back to the field's great founding strength: the giddy discov ...more
Robert Sheard
Sep 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
While the sections on linguistics (mercifully brief) are not really of interest to me, I appreciated Kulick's open and candid discussions of his multiple stays in Gapun. I've never studied anthropology, but his brief essay on the legacy of Margaret Mead was also fascinating. A very good read, even for the complete lay-person like me.
Bob Schnell
Feb 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Advanced reading copy - publication date June 18, 2019

While I am often fascinated by travel tales where explorers come across previously unknown tribes, this is the first book I've read where the author sets out to live among such a community. The village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea wasn't exactly unknown, but you won't find it on any maps either. Don Kulick wanted to study a dying language and was directed to Gapun where about 200 people are the last speakers of Tayap, a unique aboriginal lang
Mar 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel-and-food
When I saw this ARC book, I was interested because it reminded me of a documentary I had seen called First Contact about Australian gold prospectors in a remote part of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. While the author's reason for being among this particular village, was more benign (because, he was there to study the death of their language, and not to get rich), I saw a lot of parallels, especially in the universal belief that white people were ghosts.

Studying and trying to learn Tayap, an anci
Review coming.
Linda Bond
Jun 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Languages, cultures, peoples are disappearing from the earth every day. This is the story of one group of people in Papua, New Guinea, as told by “card carrying anthropologist” Don Kulick. He wants us to know. And, like Margaret Mead, he believes we should be responsible to make sure this does not happen. This is an insightful book with much to say to anyone who cares. I think you will like it, and you will learn about the people of the Gapun village; I know you will gain much from the reading.

Jun 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, science, travel
Fascinating, and very approachable story of Kulick's anthropological studies of a remote village in Papua New Guinea. The first half focuses on his work to document their unique, and probably soon to be extinct, language. The second half focuses more on recounting stories that are culturally significant, funny, or tell us interesting practical aspects of his stays in the village. Kulick is very grounded. He doesn't aim for inspiration, or to call out a tragedy. Yet his writing is solid, and the ...more
Kathryn in FL
This is a brilliant book with some intriguing insights. Don Kulick graduated as an anthropologist and went to New Guinea to study a community in the Rainforest, whose unique language was quickly disappearing. He lived with the Gapun people for more than 2 1/2 years out of 3 and traveled back repeatedly for shorter periods over the next 30 years. Studying them as both a culture and how it was becoming integrated into two nearby tribes that for millenniums had remained separate from one another, t ...more
Jun 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Kurlick has a talent for narrative nonfiction. The book is very interesting and easy to read. I admit that I only selected it from the library shelf because of the Papua New Guinea setting. I haven’t been there, but during a nine-year period of living in Jakarta, Indonesia I went on an amazing trek in West Papua (Irian Jaya) - the Indonesian half of the island.

Even without living with our hosts – usually only spending a day or two in any location - I had very conflicted feelings throughout the t
Nov 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book!
Jessica Rodrigues
Jun 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I went into this book completely blind, having only the vague notion that Papua New Guinea was somewhere in Oceania and curious to read something totally outside of my usual picks. I figured it would probably be boring, but I would slog through it for the sake of expanding my horizons.

I was quite wrong.

This book was fascinating, honest, playful, and a bit convicting. The author doesn't shy away from honestly discussing some of their beliefs and practices that would be considered bizarre to Ameri
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This book surprised me in so many ways. I went in expecting condescension from a white anthropologist to a black Papua New Guinea village and didn't get it. I went in expecting to be bored by a complicated technical explanation of 'language death' and I was so drawn into the story I couldn't put it down. I would highly recommend reading this book!

I thought Kulick's characterizations of the Gapuners was so well done because I got SO invested in their lives over the course of the story. I was genu
Steve Bera
Jan 24, 2020 rated it did not like it
The first half of the book read like a term paper. Nothing there to grab my interest. Once I was half through the book the author talked about being robbed. From there the story picked up and I learned a bit of the culture of New Guinea, which was ok. Not a book that kept my attention and do not recommend.
Sep 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
I don't usually think of myself as a reader of anthropological nonfiction, but I found this book engrossing. It was well-written, entertaining, and enjoyably educational. I would definitely recommend if you have any interest on languages, cultures, and how the two intertwine.
Joseph Hamilton
Dec 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A few years ago a movie came out that, after reading the reviews, I decided it would be best if I did not see. It was about a man with cystic fibrosis, a disease that suffocates you. The man decided that the best way to distract himself from his affliction was to hire a dominatrix, i.e., a woman in a black leather corset, to inflict pain on him, e,g., shove a billiard ball up his anus or drive a nail through the head of his penis. The author does something similar here: he learns the pidgin Engl ...more
Catherine Woodman
Sep 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
I am on a non-fiction kick these days and so when I read a review of a book on a subject that I know nothing about, I put it on my library hold list, and this is one such book. The loss of language is like all the other extinctions we will be watching unfold, and understanding what we lose when that happens is well worth thinking about.

As a young anthropologist, in 1985, Don Kulick, the author of this book, traveled to the most remote reaches of Papua New Guinea to study how a language dies. Mo
Kelli Oliver George
Sep 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I have always been interested in linguistics, anthropology, and Papua New Guinea. This book was a perfect intersection of those three interests.

I really appreciated Kulick's approach to this. It was respectful, but he was still able to share his frustrations with various situations in a way that didn't reek of white arrogance. His relationship with Gapun and the villagers was one tinged with love and respect. It was obvious why he chose to live there for a combined total of 3 years spanning over
Oct 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The author seems to have a healthy balance of awareness and accounting for his privilege, consideration for the dignity and concerns of the people whose language and culture he studied, and a skepticism for the modern criticism that has paralyzed many Western anthropologists. He also has a nuanced and critical take on much of the current writing about language preservation and language death. A likely wise and considered point of view from someone whose work mostly comes from prior decades and i ...more
Laura Trombley
Mar 27, 2019 rated it liked it
He isn't Mark Kurlansky or Jared Diamond but he does a good job and he has a sense of humor. I did love how he wrapped the idea up with his argument about why do we need to worry about losing a language with less than 500 speakers, a language that possibly never had more than 500 speakers ever, in an isolated spot in the rain forest of Papuan, New Guineau? Read it to find out.
Mar 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book made me excited to do my readings for a class I was taking as a GE.

It's a funny, tragic, deeply human story about community, survival, and the devastating effects of imperialism which continue to ripple out under the Western neo-liberalism we've adopted (love how we pretend colonialism doesn't exist today since we no longer call it by that name).

Would highly, highly recommend.
Kyle Wendy Skultety (
This is an easy read about the likeable members of a tribe in Papua, New Guinea. First of all, I have to give the author props for having the gumption to head into the darkest of rainforests (the only way to reach the village of Gapun is to traverse rivers and thick forests for hours) multiple times.

At first, the author’s statement that all Papuans not-so-secretly want to be white people was a bit off-putting. As I read further, I understood what he meant – they wanted to be successful, not nece
Zulu Fox
Apr 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely wonderful. This book was an unexpected delight that I breezed through in two days. I would highly recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested in languages or far-away peoples and places (supposing you live far away from PNG). This book is basically an anthropologist's attempt to collect all of the anecdotes, observations and musings that perhaps wouldn't have been entirely appropriate in a more academic work and to put them all together in a more-or-less linear, semi-autobiographic ...more
Iron Mike
Aug 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: language
The last 10% of the book I was debating whether this book should be 3 or 4 stars. At one point I had decided to give it 4 but note that I meant 3.5. But in the end I decided on 3. Because of "The End" (254-59) and "...After the End" (260-70).

The good: Nice look into a dying oceanic language. Writing was good enough that it had me not wanting to put the book down. Great stories of his encounters with the people of Gapun. And the reader does remain interested in the "local politics" of the Gapuner
Mar 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and decidedly personal account of anthropology. Kulick is blunt about his own feelings, spending several years of his life in Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, after growing up in the industrialized West.

But his dislike of certain practices - and the food - doesn't stop him from providing appropriately detailed narratives of the lives of these villagers. And his willingness to admit himself as a human being allows him to depict the villagers as human beings, not as da
Robert Stevens
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Linguistics, culture, and travel are three of my favorite things, which lead me to pick up this book.

A big idea I got from this book is a reframing of the idea of language death. I agree with Dan Kulick that languages don’t just die, but they dissolve and there is a method to it that is rooted in culture.

What does this book do well? Well, the author positions himself as a person of privilege and an outsider of the group with which he lives, but one who is able to engage with those in the commu
Saeed Husain
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Read this over the summer, and possibly one of the best books I've read in anthropology. Very reminiscent of Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist. Don Kulick has had a remarkable career, and this might be his single-most important work when it comes to making anthropology more accessible. Though fieldwork was done years ago (and has been more "academically" published), the book hauntingly takes one through problems faced by indigenous communities (in this case the Taiap) even today, all to ...more
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Don Kulick is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His books include Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes.

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