The Punu or Bapunu, are a Bantu meta-ethnicity of Central Africa, mainly in Gabon and a small population in Republic of Congo
They are one of the four major people of Gabon, inhabiting interior mountain and grassland areas. They are around the upper N'Gounié and Nyanga Rivers in Gabon.
Globally, this group totals 322,500 in 2 countries. (Peoplegroups.org, 2023)
Language: Punu (Bantu).
Neighbouring Peoples: Ashira, Mpongwe, Lumbo, Kota, Fang, Kongo
Although not much is known about the history of the Punu, linguistic evidence suggests that they moved into their current location from an area to the north, possibly driven southward by the Kota and Fang who moved into the area just north of Punu territory in recent centuries. This area had been occupied by various Pygmy peoples prior to Bantu expansion. Punu art forms suggest a connection with their neighbours that may have emerged from a shared history or simply through contact.
According to Magang-Ma-Mbuju and Mbumb Bwass the Punu people come from the people called «Jagas» and come from Kasaï and Zambezi. According to them, it was the Punu people who had invaded the kingdom of Kongo in 1568 and they were known as Jagas.
Claude Hélène Perrot said that before the publication of the work of these two authors (Magang-Ma-Mbuju and Mbumb Bwass), many studies devoted to the Jagas problem had shown that this warrior group was of diverse origins, B.M. Batsikama and M. Ipari had concluded that the invaders of Mbanza Kongo in 1568 were populations of Kongo origin. The Punu people migrated into The Republic of the Congo in the 16th century and migrated into Southern Gabon in the 18th century.
Punu (Sira) culture is one of the traditional matrilineal cultures of Africa. Punu art is wide-ranging and renowned, especially for the tradition of crafting bronze and Wooden Masks and divers artifactes.
Some of their most important mythological stories is called Nyambye Mbumba the creator of the universe, literally meaning "the Serpent God", also known as Ouroboros in most creation myths in the old world.
Elements of Punu culture also include, Punu art, Raphia cloth, Punu Sira seasonal Calendar, Punu Chieftaincy, Punu Masks, Punu Dances, Punu Palm wine festival, Punu tribal musical instruments and Punu religion.
The dwelling in the northern areas is usually circular with a conical roof and in the southern part, especially in the savannah, the quadrangular type with a ridge or tortoise shell roof is used. The villages usually present a long street whose sides are lined with huts. In all of them there is a special house called the Council House where the elders meet to make their decisions.
The Punu have never formed supra-tribal organizations, so each village enjoys autonomy and is directed by the head of the land, who is the one who distributes it and who organizes community work. If, when a chief or an animal dies, it is thought that there is a curse or an epidemic spreads, the village is immediately abandoned and goes elsewhere to build a new one.
Funeral rites acquire a special dimension in this town. Death does not exist, but is a product of magic and the person is not dead, but bewitched or asleep. If they bury it, it is because they are afraid of seeing it corrupt; the corpse is wrapped in blankets, a symbol of wealth, worn by those who attend funerals. The deceased is buried with all his belongings near a cabin or where the "deceased" worked and food, drink and gifts are brought to him.
No sign is left, so in time the grave disappears under the tall grass. If after death there are misfortunes in the village or something inexplicable, the deceased is blamed; then he goes to his grave and talks to him. If the unrest continues, he is dug up and threatened with burning.
The birth of twins was considered a bad omen that would bring terrible evils; For this reason, one of them was killed and buried in a beautiful tomb, venerating him and showering him with gifts.
Believing that they have done something wrong, the relatives are afraid and do everything possible so that this tomb is not abandoned or destroyed.
The meaning of death is also present in its most representative artistic manifestation, such as the white mask with scarifications and a black or red mouth that symbolizes the female spectrum. It is used at funerals by the Okuyi society and its bearer dances acrobatically on tall stilts, frightening those present and creating an atmosphere of mystery.
The Punu believe in their God Nyambye, they feared evil spirits, they used to do chirurgical operations after someone death to find out the cause of the dealth however if the cause of the late person could not be found it was then the wizard (mulosi) from the family circle who should be held responsible. People were jealous of successful people and they believe that their jealousy would cause the successful person harm or death. Illness was always seen as a work of an evil spirit and the only way to heal was by a special ritual to cast away the evil spirit's work.
There is very little known about the Punu religion, but similarly to their neighbors to the north, the Fang and Kota, the Punu carve wooden reliquary figures which are stylistically different, but similarly attached to a basket carrying the bones of individual family ancestors. This seems to indicate a similarity in religious practices in regard to ancestor worship. There is also an abundance of female masks in this area. Several reports from early travelers in this area link those masks to the Mukui society, about which very little is known. Other reports link them to dances celebrating the female ancestors of the Punu peoples.
Punu economy is based on shifting hoe farming conducted in fields that have been carved out of the rain forests through slash and burn techniques. This is supplemented when necessary with hunting, fishing, and livestock, such as goats, sheep, and chickens. The surrounding Equatorial forests also provide various fruits, nuts, and tubers for consumption. The main crops include banana, yams, cassava, maize, peanuts, and manioc. Most labor is divided between the sexes, with men doing most of the hunting, gathering and clearing of land and women doing the other agricultural tasks.
The woman performs almost all of the agricultural work and care of the home; while single, she is shown with very little clothing, as she is under no obligation to cover her body.
The Punu live in small villages in the Ogowe River Basin that each include several lineages and are led by a individuals within the community who have inherited their position matrilinearly, rather than by a centralized force.
There is very little known about the Punu religion, but similarly to their neighbours to the north, the Fang and Kota, the Punu carve wooden reliquary figures which are stylistically different, but similarly attached to a basket carrying the bones of individual family ancestors. This seems to indicate a similarity in religious practices in regard to ancestor worship. There is also an abundance of female masks in this area. Several reports from early travellers in this area link those masks to the Mukui society, about which very little is known. Other reports link them to dances celebrating the female ancestors of the Punu peoples.
The most common types of objects found are carved masks, which have been stylistically compared to Japanese art. They also carve standing reliquary figures, which watch over the bones of the deceased.
One of the well known Punu art objects are the white masks with nine dots on the forehead symbolizing the nine Punu clans, now known as the Punu masks.The masks are life size, they can cover a persons face. They are worn by the dancers in south Gabon. When there is a major community event the dancers wear these masks, one major event would be a dance performed for a secret society. Europeans have been trying to discover the Punu society for a long time, but not until June 1865 did the first European discover the first white mask. Later in 1925-30 Europeans had more access to the societies and the secrecy was less than before.
Black masks in Punu culture were worn by dancers as training masks, which perform first to announce the arrival of the white mask dancer which is more experienced. Sometimes when a misfortune happens to a group they take white masks and paint them black. This type of masks in only danced with in the dark at night. Different from the other two masks, these masks are rarely found in a museum because they used to hide them very well. They hid these masks because the belief that they are dangerous and they have an evil nature.