Most of our understanding of culture change among the Purari Delta people comes from the pioneer ethnographic research of Robert Maher in the 1950's.  It was published in his book New Men of Papua: A Study in Culture Change (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961).  A follow-up study was done by Joshua Bell of Oxford University in 2001-2002.  His conclusions are more positive concerning the condition of Purari Delta people and their culture today.  Bell reports that the decline in population described by Maher has been reversed.  There are now about 10,000 people living in the delta and at least 10,000 more Purari Delta people living elsewhere in Papua New Guinea.  While the old imunu beliefs and traditions have gone, the concept and value of imunu have continued in a changed form.  Regarding imunu, Bell reports (personal communication 2/18/2003):

Understood as invisible humans, imunu are believed to still inhabit the bush living in trees and whirlpools, and take the form of large crocodiles, fish, birds such as hornbills, pigs, and or cassowaries.  Boys don't acquire it the same way (i.e., by means of an organized ritual initiation)--rather a man or woman (both sexes are now able to possess imunu) use some magical herbs, go into the bush, find an imunu and establish a relationship with the being.  Once this relationship has begun, the person receives powers, which can be used to heal or harm people.  The powers also partially depend on the imunu's physical form, so for example an imunu in the form of a bird gives its human companion the ability to fly, a crocodile the ability to swim and so forth.  In return for the imunu's powers the person must routinely feed their imunu either with food or money.  Failure to do so can cause the imunu to leave or cause the person and their family harm.  Today, while there is plenty of talk about dapu (sorcerers) who use imunu powers to kill people, there are only a few imunu a'a (imunu men) around who openly heal people.  The various churches (Seventh-day Adventist, Pentecostal and United Church) today label imunu as satanic and as such these practices now publicly carry negative connotations.  Interestingly, with new diseases such as HIV/Aids and diabetes making inroads into the region, people are now using imunu a'a in hopes that they will be able cure what Western medicine can not.


This page was last updated on Friday, July 14, 2006 .
Copyright 2000-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.