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THROWIM WAY LEG: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds -- On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea. By Tim Flannery.

Illustrated. 326 pp. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. $25.

New York Times Book Review By D. J. R. Bruckner

A scientist writes of the wonders he found in New Guinea and the dangers its primitive peoples face from civilization.

It is always slightly unnerving arriving at a new location in New Guinea, Tim Flannery says. "You have no idea what the locals will be like or how you will be received." What an understatement! This man walked alone into a village for the first time and overheard three locals agreeing to kill him, and that is far from the most threatening situation he found himself in. The title of his book, "Throwim Way Leg," is pidgin for going on a journey. Flannery, a celebrated mammalogist and paleontologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, made 15 long research excursions into New Guinea beginning in 1981, when he was 26; in a dozen years he identified at least 17 new species of mammals, and his "Mammals of New Guinea" (1990) is the standard scientific guide. But "Throwim Way Leg" is more than an account of his fieldwork. It is an enthralling introduction to the mountain people of New Guinea -- unimaginably remote, charming, cunning, cruel, subtle and appealing -- and to their magnificent land. Flannery is not always an eloquent writer, but his evocations of the New Guinean landscape carry you away.

About 12,000 years ago, when the ocean swallowed an ice-age land bridge between Australia and New Guinea, life on the island was cut off from the world. In a place with no pack animals, where walking is the only locomotion and passage in any direction requires scaling mountains rising from 5,000 to 15,000 feet, people became so isolated from one another that today almost 1,000 languages are used.

Equatorial monsoons sweeping the mountains create alpine swamps in the clouds, and on such wet vertical terrain arable tracts and dwelling spaces are few and distant, so the islanders formed tribes in tiny villages, warring with one another for 500 generations.

No common identity developed and there is no political history -- kingdoms, pyramids, common religion, shared culture, all that.

Early in this century the Netherlands claimed the western half of the island and Australia the eastern half. But they stuck to the coast. Only in the late 30’s was much contact made with mountain people, the vast bulk of the population. Now the world is moving in. In 1963 Dutch New Guinea became Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia, and in 1975 the Australian territory became a nation, Papua New Guinea. There are still almost no roads on the island, and none across it; but small airstrips multiply, and international companies operate gold and copper mines. So the tribesmen are moving in a lifetime from the Neolithic period into the global Westernized economy.

Flannery’s intimacy with them was necessary: to find unknown species of mammals he needed local hunters. They could eat their prey and he got the skin and bones for his natural history museum. Soon he needed the tribesmen for their rich companionship; readers will share his respect for their intelligence and his delight in their cutting sense of humor, especially about sex, and in their practical jokes, childish but shrewd tests of the wit of their targets.

Rightly, Flannery honored the tribesmen in scientific names he gave a few species. (He had an amusing payback in kind through a youth who helped him clean dead animals and took as reward a gut parasite from them, which he swallowed alive. A parasitologist to whom Flannery sent one of these creatures found it was a new species and named it Flannery’s tapeworm: Burtiela flanneryi.) The tribesmen spring vividly from these pages, speaking in their own voices, and you will remember many by name.

Some are cannibals. A lot of lurid speculation has been published about New Guinea cannibalism over the last 50 years, so the sobriety of Flannery’s account is a relief. A village headman told him a revealing story about where his son, a young man Flannery admires, came from:

The headman's village staged an attack on a neighboring community, killed all the adults, gutted their carcasses to carry home for food and raised the children as their own, among them a baby hidden in a tree -- his son. His wife added: "We ate his . . . parents. . . . They gave me all the milk I needed to nourish two children." Flannery says cannibalism was never ubiquitous in New Guinea -- nothing is -- but other cannibals appear here, including a great hunter who, in a fit of blinding grief, hatcheted his daughter and commanded his family to feast on her.

Flannery offers no excuses, and few judgments. He does say that in some tribes child mortality nears 100 percent and, with governments now curbing the traditional village raids, certain communities face extinction. In fact, the whole population does, every day, from cholera, malaria, ringworm, amebic dysentery, pig tapeworm, tropical ulcers, intestinal roundworms and scrub typhus (not to mention hypothermia on mountain passes where people wearing little more than penis gourds or grass skirts can easily end up as wild-dog food). Flannery’s own experience of several of these diseases is grim reading; you know he must love his work.

There can be no animal he is not fond of -- the possums and marsupials he is the world's leading student of, certainly, but also singing dogs, wild pigs, shrieking frogs, a spider that does a Christo number on whole trees and a brilliant array of birds of paradise (their displays, in his words, can raise goose bumps). He has a toe-tickling dalliance with a preposterously affectionate giant anteater and lingers over a yard-long cave rat that "let out a loud, dog like snarl" at him. He even likes a 10-foot black python that nearly bested him in what he calls a match between "the snake and its prospective meal." His passion is tree kangaroos -- they took to the canopies of rain forests when food got scarce below -- although it is unfeeling of him, I think, to say they look "rather clumsy in the treetops."

The high point of his scientific career, he says, was his classification of a black-and-white species that was legendary among the tribes but had never been seen by an outsider before a hunter brought him one. He named it dingiso, which is what the locals call it. (It should be said here that Flannery's American publisher gives him little help. He often compares animals in New Guinea with those in Australia, and an American who does not know a wallaby from a wombat is left to wonder. Also, while there is a small gallery of his photographs, only a couple are of animals; pictures or drawings of others are so obviously needed that their absence is a bit insulting.)

One wonders: can such rare animals long survive? Taboos are the only protection for some, Flannery says, and the lifting of a taboo or the invasion of a sacred territory by a distant tribe can wipe out a species in months. In 1975 the skull and bones of an ice-age bat of singular rarity were found. The animal entered the scientific roster as Bulmer's fruit bat, the world's largest, extinct for 12 millenniums. In 1977 an anthropologist sent to a bat expert in Sydney a skull saved from a banquet of roast bat he attended in New Guinea. It was a Bulmer's fruit bat. The expert rushed to the cave where the mountain people had gathered their feast and found no sign that a single bat was left -- Extinction II. What had happened was this: The tribe living near the cave observed a taboo against touching the bats. But hunters from another tribe lowered a man on a rope into the cave, armed with a pernicious piece of Western technology: the anthropologist's shotgun. He blasted away at the cave ceiling and thousands of bats fell. Other tribes heard about this and devoured the rest. But not quite all: 10 years later Flannery saw a few bats emerge from the cave. One night, hanging by fingers and toes from treetops teetering over a 1,000-foot-deep shaft above the cave entrance, he and a colleague caught a live Bulmer's fruit bat in a net. If the local tribe can now make outsiders observe its taboo, the species may survive.

The traditional life of the mountain people is unlikely to, despite Flannery's wistful hope. That many younger people are so intrigued by Western clothes, gadgetry, machinery and, most tellingly, money does not augur well for what the tribesmen call "the old ways." The prospect brings a tone of discontent with Western civilization into Flannery's voice -- not complaint but low background noise, perhaps left over from the big bang of political correctness 20 years ago. Thus he repeatedly snipes at Christianity for trying to change morals and clothe nudity.

(Editors note: One wonders if his dislike of the changing morality covered cannibalism; presumably he did want to be eaten and thus one morality at least was ok to change!)

But his own testimony contradicts him: the only outsiders in his book who compete with the locals in vital eccentricity are two European Roman Catholic priests who in dramatically different ways inspire the tribes to hang onto as much of the old ways as they can.

Flannery's fear that Irian Jaya will combust is more compelling. Jakarta promotes migrations of Indonesians into the island and relentlessly tries to impose Javanese social order. Only a large armed force keeps control, and it has killed thousands of tribal people. In 1996 Flannery found that most mountain villagers he visited assumed there would soon be a war between them and the Indonesian Army. A symbol of the situation is a huge gold mine in the Irian mountains, run by an American company. Tribesmen say they could live with the company if it were truly autonomous, but it is as entwined by Jakarta as Flannery was by the python. The Government has built near the mine a Javanese city for 25,000 people (expandable to 250,000) in the midst of a rain forest, gleaming new and as yet unoccupied when Flannery saw it -- a chilling, empty monster. Yet the mining company supported his research, and he dedicates the book to its chairman and those of other mining interests in the region "in the hope that . . . they will understand a little better the people whose lives they so profoundly change."

In fact, he owes to the miners the most lovable character of all, appearing in a few emotionally charged pages at the end that evince the wonder and sweet sadness of the whole book. In 1994 a miner called Flannery in Sydney, summoning him urgently. He returned to find, in a miniature rain forest constructed on a porch, a young male dingiso that had wandered into the mine site, the first living one he met. The miners called it Ding. "As I opened the screen door to peer in, Ding . . .hopped out of the foliage and came towards me," he says, and its gentle personality comes right off the page into the reader’s heart. After a few days Flannery and a pilot airlifted the tree kangaroo into the mountains: "When we released him into the alpine herbage, Ding hopped away very slowly, sampling leaves as he went. He was in no hurry to leave us, and it was only after several minutes that he disappeared into a dense tangle of bushes."

D. J. R. Bruckner is an editor at the Book Review.

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