Wednesday, 15 April 2020
Book Review - NEW GUINEA, Nature and Culture of Earth's Grandest Island - Princeton University Press
Once in a while a book comes along that really sets you back on your heels, and this is such a work. It is a formidable volume, by Bruce Beehler, a scientist who probably has greater familiarity with New Guinea than any other living academic, and forty plus years of knowledge and research are crystallized in this work.
I think it is safe to say that most people have but a passing acquaintance with New Guinea, and even then only with that part of the island known as Papua New Guinea, and more specifically with its spectacular birds of paradise. This phenomenon has been fuelled by a succession of television documentaries, especially those by a renowned (and legendary) British naturalist, and additional coverage of birds of paradise in popular birding journals.
There is a level of awareness that New Guinea suffers from a high rate of crime, often violent in nature, and that gang rivalry is an issue. Some even know that the peripatetic, fabled birder, Phoebe Snetsinger, was brutally raped there. Others have a passing knowledge of the early work by researchers such as Ernst Mayr, Jared Diamond and others; many will be familiar with the seminal, original insights of Alfred Russel Wallace. For most, these snippets of knowledge constitute but a meagre insight into the the nature of the island - as Beehler calls it, Earth's Grandest Island.
Instead of referring to Papua, representing the Indonesian western part of the island and Papua New Guinea comprising the eastern half, Beehler uses the designations ENG (eastern New Guinea) and WNG (western New Guinea) throughout the book. This avoids any confusion brought about by incorrect usage of political terminology, which is rife, and the reader is at all times clear as to which zone the text refers. ENG has been far more widely explored due to the relative ease with which researchers may enter Papua New Guinea as contrasted with the difficulties encountered when seeking entry into WNG, beset by political barriers and mistrust of scientists and academics from the west.
What Beehler has done with this book is to present a complete package involving all of the physical, faunal, floral, historical and cultural aspects of New Guinea. He starts with an excellent overview and then provides a detailed summary of the history of the island. In terms of history, I knew next to nothing, and I would be willing to wager that many others similarly lack such knowledge. Yet this is so critical a component to understanding modern conditions, political, societal, and environmental.
We then are treated to the hard science - geology, climatology, biogeography (so key on an island such as this), botany, invertebrate life, ichthyology (of this I knew literally nothing), herpetology, and ornithology, the largest single chapter, reflecting the fact that more study has been dedicated to birds than to any of the other organisms on New Guinea. The Pitohui, the first (and as yet the only) chemically-defended bird is found on New Guinea, and there is a fascinating account of how it was realized that the bird is poisonous.
The section on mammalogy reveals that very few large mammals are ever encountered, even by scientists doing field work on other taxa, yet there is an incredible level of richness including monotremes, marsupials and placental mammals. Many fertile fields of research remain open for enterprising graduate students.
Sections on Paleontology and paleoanthropology follow, and coverage of the people of New Guinea is comprehensive and fascinating - so many tribes, so many languages.
The coastal marine zone is important in the lives of many New Guineans and appropriate attention is paid to this critical ecosystem, replete with coral reefs, rich in diversity, but susceptible to destruction from coral bleaching.
The chapter entitled "In the Field" furnishes a fascinating insight into the conditions encountered by researchers. Field work on New Guinea is not for the faint of heart!
Life in a traditional village is explored in some detail and the final chapter delves into what the future holds for this place of incredible riches, yet threatened nevertheless by the forces of globalization, unfettered capitalism, disdain for the environment, upheaval of ancestral life styles - all the familiar problems facing emerging nations around the world, and especially relevant to the future of indigenous peoples, and their languages and culture.
I know of no other work covering New Guinea in anywhere near the detail provided by this book. It is impressive on so many levels, most of all because having read it one is left with a holistic view of "Earth's Grandest Island" and one is able to contextualize any field of research - social, scientific, biological or anthropological into the total context of 21st Century realities.
Of one thing you can be sure, I will read it again!
New Guinea: Nature and Culture of the Earth's Grandest Island
Bruce M. Beehler, with photography by Tim Laman
Hardcover - US$29.95 - 9780691180304 - 376 pages - 152 colour photographs - 1 map - 9 1/4 in. x 11 in.
Publication date: 19 May 2020