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ETHNONYMS: Koriki, Purari


Identification. "Namau" is a term used to designate both the region and its inhabitants by the people who live in the Purari River delta region of the south coast of Papua New Guinea. Some local people, however, prefer the name Purari. The Koriki are one of the several named tribes in the area, which also include the Tai, Kaimari, and Maipua.

Location. Namau territory, centering on about 7°30 to 7°45 S and 145° E, consists of the swampy marshlands formed by the five major mouths of the Purari River. The climate is very wet with high daytime temperatures. The region is essentially mud and water with islands of drier land Scattered about and freshwater marshes that support sago and nipa palms. Nearer the coast one finds extensive mangrove stands. The waterways provide an avenue of communication and travel between island settlements as well as a rich variety of fish for the local diet.

Demography. Recent estimates suggest a total of about 6,500 speakers of the Purari language. It appears that the Region suffered a population decline in the first half of the twentieth century, but it has been showing a slow, steady increase since 1956, perhaps due in part to the introduction of Western health care.

linguistic Affiliation. Purari is considered by linguists to be an "isolate," unrelated to its nearest neighbors, such as Northeast Kiwai to the west and Orokolo to the east.

History and Cultural Relations

Information about the Namau prior to European contact is sketchy. Two of the groups (Kaimari and Maipua) have oral traditions suggesting that they may have migrated into the Region, perhaps from the southwest, but no such tradition appears to exist for the other groups. The Namau were known to have been very warlike, and both head-hunting and Ceremonial cannibalism formed important parts of traditional ritual culture. The first European contact took place in 1894 and government involvement, labor recruitment, missionary activities, and efforts at modernization followed shortly thereafter. Many men of the region served in the Papuan Infantry Battalion during World War II. As happened elsewhere in New Guinea, this experience and exposure to Western goods and values resulted in a high degree of local dissatisfaction in the postwar years. For the Namau, this unrest found expression in the Tommy Kabu movement, which was an effort to introduce a cooperative economy, break up the old Ceremonial system, and achieve local political sovereignty. The movement did not receive adequate government support and by 1955 had achieved little by way of positive gains, in part because it lacked the people and the skills to carry out its Economic program.

Settlements Namau settlements, containing up to 2,500 people, traditionally were built on islands of drier land Scattered throughout the swamps. Dwellings had a high front elevation, rising up to as much as 20 meters with a roof line that sloped rearward to a back elevation of 4-5 meters. These dwellings were built on stilts to protect the structures from flooding during high-water periods. Men and women had separate houses, both built according to this structural style and partitioned on the inside. The partition-formed alcoves in the women's house provided separate quarters for each woman and her young children. The men's house, or ravi, served also as an important ceremonial center. Its alcoves, which ran in two parallel rows along the sides of the building, each had its own hearth and belonged to a small patrilineally related group of men and initiated youths. Modernization efforts, Including the Tommy Kabu movement, have resulted in the adoption of European house design and the relocation of settlements to drier land areas, and the ceremonial centers/men's houses are no longer built.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Namau Subsistence depends on taro, sweet potatoes, sago, coconuts, and bananas, as well as fish and great quantities of crabs from the rivers and streams. Game hunted for food includes wild pigs and wallabies. Gathered foods, such as grubs, also contribute to the diet, as do birds, though to a rather limited extent. Rattan, important in the construction of ritual masks and effigies as well as for house building, is obtained during large expeditions upriver. After Western contact the men of Namau were recruited to work for wages on European-owned plantations.

Industrial Arts. Namau build houses and canoes, make weapons and utilitarian items such as fishing nets and bows, and fashion ritual and ornamental objects from feathers, pearl shells, and rattan. Much of Namau manufacture is ornately carved with totemic motifs. Canoes are made primarily for local use, although sometimes they are sold. These vessels are not equipped with outrigging and the bows are carved with totemic designs.

Trade. Apart from exchanges occurring in ceremonial contexts, the only significant trade occurred with visits of Motu canoes taking part in the vast hiri trading system.

Division of Labor. Men build houses in cooperative groups recruited from patrilineally related kin. Canoe building is done only by men, as is the making of masks and effigies. Hunting is men's work as is most gardening and the tending of coconuts. Men also fish with bows and arrows or spears, but primarily for sport rather than as a subsistence activity. Women, on the other hand, engage in more serious fishing, using hand traps, hand nets, or long nets spread across streams. Women also process sago once the trees have been felled and floated downriver by the men. Gathering crabs and other food items may be done by either sex, but it tends to be done primarily by women. While all adult men are expected to be capable of building or making whatever they might need to secure a livelihood, an individual may develop a reputation as a particularly fine carver or boat builder and achieve a sort of specialist status among his fellows.

Land Tenure. Land for settlements and gardening, as well as associated waterways, is associated with local patrilineal groups rather than being vested in individuals. Rights to land are inherited patrilineally, with all sons having rights to the land of their fathers' groups.


Kin Groups and Descent. Namau reckon descent patrilineally, allocating membership in one or another of several "river clans" (i.e., clans that derive their names and totemic associations from the rivers of the district). These river clans, dispersed among local, exogamous, patrilineal groups, are themselves assigned to exogamous moieties. By 1955, However, the traditional clan and moiety system no longer had any important functions, and Namau society has moved Instead toward a kindred system.

Kinship Terminology. Namau kinship terms are of the Hawaiian type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, Namau marriages were polygynous and marriages were often arranged while the potential spouses were still quite young. Wife stealing was also not uncommon and was a source of conflict that led easily to open hostilities between groups. Bride-wealth was required, and postmarital residence was patrilocal. Wife exchange appears to have been common in traditional Namau society. Divorce does not appear to have been an option for women, and husbands were held to be fully within their rights in beating their wives. Relationships among cowives were frequently not peaceful. Among the other social and cultural changes occurring by the 1950s was a dissolution of the old marriage system and its connections with the descent system. Nowadays Individuals have much freedom in contracting marriages and the nuclear family is of central importance.

Domestic Unit. In the past cowives shared a single dwelling, but each had her own partitioned section in which she and her young children ate and slept. Women worked in their own gardens and cooked for their own children. In recent decades, the nuclear family has become a residential and work unit.

Inheritance. Heritable property passes from parents to children, with sons inheriting their fathers' shell ornaments, canoes, pigs, and dogs, and daughters their mothers' tools and personal effects.

Socialization. During their early years, children are largely cared for and disciplined by their mothers. In the past, a series of initiation rites served as the vehicle by which older children, especially boys, were taught the skills, practices, and lore of adulthood. At about 8 years of age boys were taken on a journey upriver to be initiated into the Totemic groups of their patrilineal clans. At about 13, boys of the same patrician underwent a period of seclusion and Ceremony in a specially built ravi, after which they took on the status of warriors.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional social organization centered on the exogamous moieties, the river clans, and localized patrilineages, all of which established appropriate Marriage partners and gave structure to affinal relations. At the hamlet or settlement level, the ravi brought together men of several different patrilineal groups, but each group maintained its own wickerwork mask and ritual obligations. Cooperation within the settlement often necessarily crosscut Lineage membership (e.g., in matters of warfare or large-scale projects such as house building). Other cooperative efforts, such as the collection of bride-wealth, were carried out within the confines of the specific local patrilineage.

Political Organization. Traditionally, each Namau village had its own chief, as did each moiety, but a man was expected to lead with consent. In general, personal attributes of physical strength and success in warfare and raiding contributed to the prestige needed for effective leadership. For the most part, a leader's influence did not extend beyond the hamlet level and it was primarily concerned with mobilizing men for war, for ceremonial occasions, and for communitywide Projects. The Tommy Kabu movement was an effort to unite the Namau economically and politically into a cooperative, sovereign unit, and for a time the newly introduced Purari Villages tried to establish their own police, jails, and courts. These forms have all been superseded by participation in the modern provincial and national governments.

Social Control. Traditional Namau methods of social control centered on a system of totemic beliefs and associated taboos. Fears of sorcery served as checks on individuals with regard to gross antisocial behavior. If a wife did not perform her duties adequately, her husband was considered to be within his rights if he beat her; in the case of a wife's adultery she might be beaten to death.

Conflict. War was an important aspect of traditional Namau culture, which called for the taking of heads and Ritual cannibalism in certain of its ceremonies, particularly in the initiation of youths. Hostilities might arise over allegations of sorcery, theft, or wife stealing, and raids were made on neighboring Purari groups. Battles were fought between two roughly equivalent ranks of warriors who faced one another and shot off a rain of arrows until one or more of the enemy had been seriously wounded or killed. Efforts appear to have been taken to keep the casualty levels equal on the two sides.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The central concept in Namau religion was imunu, an all-pervading force (like mana elsewhere in Oceania) that took a different form in each kind of being or object. Thus river spirits were regarded as the mythological sources of the river clans, and other natural phenomena and local fauna were believed to have their own spiritual forces. Vengeful ghosts or spirits of slain warriors as well as the spirits of ancestors were thought to be able to trouble the living.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional Namau ritual life was a male province; women were not initiated into the esoterica of a patrilineage's river spirit or totem. Each ravi had two or more hereditary priests, who presided over ceremonies. Sorcerers, too, were thought to be men, characterized by an excess of ambition, willful failure to fulfill kin-based ritual obligations, and a lack of generosity.

Ceremonies. Large wickerwork masks and effigies featured importantly in traditional ceremonies, which were held for boys' initiations and other life-cycle events as well as to secure success in or celebrate victory after wars. Marriages, however, do not seem to have been marked by a particular ceremony.

Arts. The most dramatic of all Namau artistic productions were the woven masks, of which there were two types: the large kanipu, which were maintained in the men's house; and the aiai masks, constructed for specific ceremonies and later burned. The dominant motif on masks as well as in most Namau carving (of bowls and spoons, canoe prows, etc.) is the stylized representation of a face. Other Namau decorative arts include carved bark ceremonial belts, carved combs and drums, and pearl-shell breastplates. Noseplugs, earplugs, scarification, shaving heads, and hairdressing were elements of bodily adornment.

Medicine. Namau traditionally believed that all illness and misfortune ultimately resulted from the activity of spirits, with or without the involvement of a human agent through sorcery. Cures thus centered on entreating or cajoling the responsible spirit to stop the attack. For this a ritual specialist, versed in the skills of communicating with the spirits, was called in. In 1949 the London Missionary Society built a hospital in the region, and each of the larger village-style Namau settlements now has a local clinic dispensing Western-style health care.

Death and Afterlife. In the past, kin expressed mourning by observing food taboos and covering themselves with mud and dirt. Usually the deceased was wrapped in a mat and left to decompose in its house (now abandoned) with the bones later kept as relics or charms; sometimes, especially under mission influence, the corpse was buried in the village. A Ritual feast for the dead brought together all members of the tribe; food was accumulated by the relatives of the deceased and the spirit of the latter was thought to extract the essence of the food, leaving behind its physical form to be shared by mourners and guests. The feast officially released mourners from their external forms of mourning and the associated food taboos. It was thought that the spirit of the deceased stayed in the vicinity and might return as a ghost to annoy or harm its kin.

See also Motu, Orokolo


Holmes, J. H. (1924). In Primitive New Guinea. London: Seeley Service.

Maher, Robert F. (1961). New Men of Papua: A Study of Culture Change. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Williams, F. E. (1924). Natives of the Purari Delta. Territory of Papua Anthropology Report no. 5. Port Moresby: Government Printer.


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