cover image Notebooks from New Guinea: Field Notes of a Tropical Biologist

Notebooks from New Guinea: Field Notes of a Tropical Biologist

Vojtech Novotny. Oxford University Press, USA, $34.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-19-956165-0

Czech ecologist Novotny (Arthropods of Tropical Forests) recounts his decade living in New Guinea, ""a most diverse and extraordinary land,"" home to six million people and 1,043 different languages. Focusing on the people and their way of living, little escapes Novotny's attention; he examines the base-13 number system, myths about dwarfs, the price of brides (£5,000), and other idiosyncrasies; their extended-family, communal living structure meant that New Guinea tourists in Australia were astounded to see homeless people sleeping on the streets. Occasional shockers can be in questionable taste-i.e., a flip description of cannibalism, practiced in many of New Guinea's cultures until 50 years ago: ""one might argue... against ideologies that view neighbors as canned meat on two legs, but eating the deceased was actually a highly civilized custom."" Fortunately, his excesses are balanced by genuine sympathy for people making the journey into a radically foreign, modern world, which in many ways (as Novotny illustrates) is equally improbable. 28 b&w illustrations.