A Death in the Rainforest

How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

By Don Kulick

“Perhaps the finest and most profound account of ethnographic fieldwork and discovery that has ever entered the anthropological literature.”
The Wall Street Journal

“If you want to experience a profoundly different culture without the exhausting travel (to say nothing of the cost), this is an excellent choice.”
—The Washington Post
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 returned again and again to document Tayap before it disappeared entirely, and he found himself inexorably drawn into their world, and implicated in their destiny. Kulick wanted to tell the story of Gapuners—one that went beyond the particulars and uses of their language—that took full stock of their vanishing culture. This book takes us inside the village as he came to know it, revealing what it is like to live in a difficult-to-get-to village of two hundred people, carved out like a cleft in the middle of a tropical rainforest. But A Death in the Rainforest is also an illuminating look at the impact of white society on the farthest reaches of the globe—and the story of why this anthropologist realized finally that he had to give up his study of this language and this village.

An engaging, deeply perceptive, and brilliant interrogation of what it means to study a culture, A Death in the Rainforest takes readers into a world that endures in the face of massive changes, one that is on the verge of disappearing forever.

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Review quotes
One of Time’s 32 Books You Need to Read This Summer

One of National Geographic’s Best Travel Books of Summer

“Perhaps the finest and most profound account of ethnographic fieldwork and discovery that has ever entered the anthropological literature.”
The Wall Street Journal

“If you want to experience a profoundly different culture without the exhausting travel (to say nothing of the cost), this is an excellent choice.”
—The Washington Post

“What does it take to study a culture? Anthropologist Don Kulick visited the small village of Gapun in New Guinea on and off for 30 years to study its dying language, Tayap. Blending academic discourse, linguistics and his personal stories about life in the remote community, A Death in the Rainforest illuminates the ways a society can change over time and become swallowed by forces of the outside world.”

“An important history lesson from an anthropologist who spent three decades watching a language and a people go extinct as the rainforest around them disappeared.”
—The Revelator

“Anthropologist Kulick tells a story of cultural and linguistic transformation and exchange in this clever, empathetic memoir of his time spent in Gapun, a remote village in Papua New Guinea . . . Despite lots of fascinating detail about a culture that appears very different from the modern West, the book concludes with a firm and moving reminder about shared similarities and an exhortation to better honor collective responsibilities. This frank, passionate work will move readers interested in a thoughtful contemplation of culture and globalization.”
Publishers Weekly

“In this captivating narrative, [Kulick] considers complex questions about race and power in anthropological research, the nature of relationships among very different people, and the challenges of living in such a demanding environment. Kulick's engrossing, thought-provoking, and transporting chronicle will be enjoyed by National Geographic fans and all readers interested in cultural investigations.”

“Kulick . . . wears his scholar's hat casually in this deeply personal, engaging inquiry . . . A sad and uplifting, ultimately poignant exploration.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[Don Kulick’s] stories of adjusting to daily life in the village are both humorous and compassionate. Throughout his time working in Gapun, he is distinctly aware of the field of anthropology’s conflicting eras of practice, from its colonialist past up to the highly culturally sensitive present. Kulick allows his research to reveal his own cultural bias and acknowledge his privilege; in doing so, he details the reasons that support his theory as to why languages die in a manner that shows strong social responsibility and fairness. Recommended for a readership of varying ages, from young adults with an interest in cultural anthropology to college students and academics.”
Library Journal

“A book not to be missed . . . Don Kulick looks back at thirty years of research into the death of Tayap, the native language in Gapun, a remote village in Papua New Guinea. His honest account of his work and adventures in this village are no less than fascinating . . . His funny, warm, and at times sad account of the changing way of life in Gapun makes for an informative and unforgettable read, and one that I wholeheartedly enjoyed.”
—Manhattan Book Review

“An epic narrative in crystalline prose of the poignant death of an ancient language and the enchanted universe it signified in a remote New Guinea village related by a gifted anthropologist who lived there on and off for 30 years as the ghost of a departed villager, sharing its communal virtues and a considerable measure of its suffering. A unique testament of global history as personal experience: you won't be able to put it down.”
—Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, The University of Chicago

A Death in the Rainforest is magical and powerful, a journey deep inside a village of 100 souls in one of the remotest places on Earth whose language is spoken by no one else, a place of love and jealousy and desire undergoing profound change. Kulick is funny, lyrical, sad, and always insightful and empathetic. It is a profoundly human story about a seemingly exotic and strange place that really isn't so strange at all.”
Carl Hoffman, author of The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure

“A remarkable feat: a gripping narrative less about the anthropologist than about a people for whom life is always now.  It is good to listen to them: they at once challenge conventional ideas about the poignancy of loss and face an irreversible future not of their making.”   
Marilyn Strathern, author of Before and After Gender
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Publication date
June 18, 2019