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Anthropologist: This Is How I Met the Spirits

What a scientist learned from his encounter with a necromancer and the spirits of his ancestors

By Ton Otto

Editor’s note: The Baluan people of Papua New Guinea believe their dead ancestors have a special power and the ability to play an active part in the lives of the living. Scientists, on the other hand, perceive the world to be a rational place void of magic. Ton Otto, a professor from Aarhus University, is now trying to unite the two worlds. This is his story.

On Manus the dead are a part of everyday life.

I’ve known this since 1986, when I started my field study on the island of Baluan, a small island in the Bismarck Sea that’s part of the Manus Province of Papua New Guinea.

But then again, did I really know?

My insight primarily stemmed from interviews and observations that led me to conclude that the Baluan people believe their dead ancestors have a special power and the ability to play an active part in the lives of the living.

But did I fully understand what it really means to live in a world that is, as it were, populated with spirits of ancestors who have long since passed? I don’t think I did — and in a way that doesn’t surprise me.

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