Portrait of Professor Roy Ellen

Professor Roy Ellen

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Human Ecology


Professor Roy Ellen was trained at the London School of Economics as a social anthropologist, though has long been committed to an anthropology that addresses the 'big issues' about what it is to be human. Roy's fieldwork has, over a period of 40 years, focused mainly on the Nuaulu of Seram and other peoples of the Moluccan islands of eastern Indonesia. He has also worked in Sulawesi, Java, Brunei and in the UK.

Throughout his career, Professor Ellen has had a continuous professional interest in the anthropology of the environment and in ethnobiology (especially in relation to cultural cognition), and inaugurated the Kent teaching programmes in these subjects. Roy has also worked on the ecological and social dynamics of inter-island trading systems.

Professor Ellen's current interests are focused on the applications of cognitive anthropology to the history of science, the reproduction of Nuaulu ritual cycles, Nuaulu contemporary cultural resilience and understanding the management and significance of cultivar diversity amongst home gardeners and farmers in the British Isles and in the Moluccas.

Research interests

Professor Ellen's main current research and writing commitments arise from four recent and current grants:

In addition, Roy continues to work on other aspects of Moluccan ethnography and human ecology, ethnobiological classification, cultural cognition and knowledge transmission.

Professor Ellen's professional CV can be viewed here.

An index of Roy's book and film reviews can be found here.


Recently completed:

  • Graciela Alcantára-Salinas: A comparative study of Cuicatec and Zapotec ornithology, with particular reference to contextual variation in a time of environmental and social change in Oaxaca, Mexico 2011.
  • Calum Blaikie: The commodification of materia medica and the practice of Tibetan medicine in Ladakh 2013.
  • Bernadette Montanari: A critical analysis of the introduction of essential oil distillation in the High Atlas of Morocco, with reference to the role of gendered traditional knowledge 2012.
  • Yoshimi Osawa: The perception and representation of umami: a study of the relationship between taste sensation, food types and cultural categories 2011.
  • Viola Schreer: Longing for prosperity in Indonesian Borneo 2016.
  • Lisa Fenton: 'Bushcraft' and 'indigenous knowledge': transformations of a concept in the modern world 2016.  


Professor Ellen was a member of the University of Kent's REF 2014 Steering Group.

Roy currently edits the Berghahn series Studies in Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology on behalf of the Centre for Biocultural Diversity.

Nationally, Professor Ellen was a member of the Anthropology and Development Subpanel for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and was Chair of the Anthropology and Geography section of the British Academy between 2012 and 2015. Roy was a Council Member of the British Academy between 2009 and 2012 and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 2007-2011. 

Professor Ellen is currently a Vice President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, a member of its Council and Chair of the Manuscripts and Archives Committee. Internationally, Roy is a member of the Darrell Posey Awards Committee of the International Society of Ethnobiology, and Assistant Editor on the Wiley International Encyclopedia of Anthropology.


Showing 50 of 118 total publications in the Kent Academic Repository. View all publications.


  • Ellen, R. (2019). Understanding geometrical features of Nuaulu shield design. Journal of Material Culture [Online] 24:210-231. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183518803393.
    This article seeks to elucidate the form and function of decorative designs on Nuaulu parrying shields from Seram, Indonesia. It builds on earlier work focusing on the shield as a sacred anthropomorphized entity with its own life-cycle, the reproduction of which mirrors the reproduction of sacred houses. It has previously been suggested that diversity in design elements is deliberately cultivated as part of a general aesthetic, connecting individuality, personhood and effervescence as features of living entities. Here the author examines the materiality of shields, documenting variation in design – especially patterns of ceramic and shell discs – and asks what significance should be attached to these. He concludes that the attribution of specific meanings to individual elements is of limited application, while the impact of the shields lies in variation itself, the perceptual affects shields have on viewers, and in abstract geometric characteristics that make them fit for ritual purpose.
  • Dresch, P. and Ellen, R. (2018). John Horsley Russell Davis, 9 September 1938 - 15 January 2017. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy [Online] XVII:121-143. Available at: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/davis-john-horsley-russell-1938-2017.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). The impact of local networks on subsistence resilience and biodiversity in a low-lying Moluccan reef system between 1600 and the present. Ambio [Online]:1-13. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-018-1091-2.
    Using field data for the 1980s and historical material, I show how the central places of networks crucial for regional and long-distance trade in the Moluccas between 1600 and the present were often environmentally vulnerable volcanic islands and low-lying reefs. After reviewing existing data on hazards, and evaluating the evidence for erosion and degradation, I suggest how resilience has been historically achieved through social and material exchanges between islands, accommodating the consequences of specific perturbations. Re-interpretation of published data shows how inter-island trade has re-organised patterns of biological interaction spatially and over the long-term, helping us assesses whether in the face of climate change effects such areas are zones of robustness or of potential fragility.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Comment on ’Revamping the metaphysics of ethnobiological classification’ by David Ludwig. Current Anthropology [Online] 59:424-426. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1086/698958.
  • Ellen, R. (2017). Distinguished economic botanist award: Plants as sociocultural objects: from economic botany to economic anthropology. Economic Botany [Online] 71:201-208. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12231-017-9387-x.
    The Society for Economic Botany has increasingly defined itself as a context for fostering expertise in ethnobotany and its various applications. However, given that my own work as an ethnobotanist has been much influenced by my training as an anthropologist, there may be merit in re-examining the 'economic' in economic botany from the standpoint of anthropology. In this address I suggest that economic anthropology provides a useful framework through which to interrogate the notions of 'use' and 'value' attributed to plant resources, and to understand how plants move - by exchange and dissemination - through socio-economic systems, how plant knowledge informs decision-making, and how ethnobotanical knowledge is socially embedded. Each of these processes rests on the foundational idea that all plants with which humans interact are necessarily and simultaneously biological and cultural. Such perspectives may even help us rethink the still sometimes unresolved issues as to what 'theory' in ethnobotany actually entails
  • Ellen, R. (2017). Is there a connection between object diversity and aesthetic sensibility? A comparison between biological domesticates and material culture. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology [Online] 82:308-330. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2015.1052085.
    This paper develops the idea that humans cultivate diversity of natural and cultural objects in particular contexts and support this by investing in an aesthetic sensibility. It shows how in studies of crop and livestock management this idea is well-established, and suggests that even when diversity that supports subsistence productivity erodes, diversity of ornamentals consumed recreationally may to some extent replace it. Similar patterns and processes can be seen in other domains, such as the design features of material culture, exemplified here through Nuaulu basketry and shield-making. The final part of the paper examines how the idea of object diversity and its aestheticization plays out when looking at economic and cultural history in the West, under conditions that might be thought to reduce it.
  • Ellen, R. and O’Neill, A. (2017). Interview with Professor Roy Ellen, Distinguished Economic Botanist 2017. Plants and People: Society For Economic Botany Newsletter [Online] 31:4-5. Available at: http://www.econbot.org/file.php?file=sitefiles/pandp/2017_spring.pdf.
  • Ellen, R. (2016). Harold Colyer Conklin, 1926-2016: an appreciation. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute.
  • Ellen, R. (2016). Is there a role for ontologies in understanding plant knowledge systems?. Journal of Ethnobiology [Online] 36:10-28. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-36.1.10.
    This paper offers a critical examination of the use of the concept of ontology in ethnobotany. Competing definitions and problems are first assessed for recent work in anthropology and the history of science. This is followed by a review of seven areas of current ethnobotanical investigation where there are disjunctions of approach that could arguably be said to be ontological: post-Linnean taxonomic orthodoxy versus local plant classification, pre-Linnean natural history versus science, phytopharmaceutical orthodoxy versus medical anthropology, museum practice versus lived practice, ecological versus phylogenetic explanation, plant versus knowledge movement, and shifts in understanding contingent on membership of different intra-cultural domains. In the light of these examples a threefold meta-conceptual distinction is suggested: between cultural domains (distinguishing knowledge and practice on the grounds of content), epistemes (distinguishing knowledge in terms of the methods and approaches used to acquire it), and ontologies in the strict sense (defined in terms of underlying logical relations and cosmological assumptions).
  • Ellen, R. (2016). Nuaulu ritual regulation of resources, sasi and forest conservation in eastern Indonesia. South East Asia Research [Online] 24:5-22. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.5367/sear.2016.0290.
    Nuaulu (Seram, Maluku, Indonesia) manage forest to provision sacred house building and ritual feasting through a system of protected areas ('sin wesie'), examined here in relation to 'sasi' institutions and scare charms ('matakau') that overlap in their functions. 'Sasi' feature in wider debates about how customary practices might deliver conservation objectives. The paper analyses interconnections between these three forms of regulation in the context of deforestation, social change and the recent history of state management interventions.
  • Ellen, R. and Puri, R. (2016). Conceptualising ’Core’ Medicinal Floras: A Comparative and Methodological Study of Phytomedical Resources in Related Indonesian Populations. Conservation and Society [Online] 14:345-358. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/0972-4923.197608.
    Although there have been comparative studies of the botanical content and patterning of ethnopharmacopoeias across different ecological zones, there are few attempts to compare these systematically within the same ethnographic and ecological areas in Southeast Asia. This paper undertakes a simple quantitative survey of the medicinal plant resources of three populations on the island of Seram in the Moluccas, and then compares the results with those from five populations on Borneo. The comparison reveals some surprising omissions and patterns; given what is known about the medicinal use of plants in islands of Southeast Asia from other sources. The paper discusses ecological, cultural, and methodological reasons for the lack of expected congruence. A model of medicinal plant resource pools is developed to aid comparison, and it is suggested that we need to examine carefully what might be understood by a ‘core’ medicinal flora. While biodiversity loss is evident in the areas where the studies have been conducted, and this may impact some actual and more potential medicinal plants, it is less likely to erode core ethno pharmacopoeias.
  • Ellen, R. (2015). Tools, agency and the category of ‘living things’. Des êtres vivants et des artefacts: Les actes de colloques en ligne du musée du quai Branly:1-21.
    Both humans and other animals attribute the qualities of living matter and agency to what we call tools and other cultural objects. In both cases a paradox may arise when autonomy is attributed to the object at the same time that it is recognized that its life-like characteristics are motivated by human actions. Nuaulu people in eastern Indonesia describe many kinds of objects as having the qualities we might otherwise reserve for biological organisms. They also distinguish entities that have many of the qualities of life but which ordinarily have no corporeal existence (spirits). While all cultural objects are potentially regarded in this way, in practice some objects are more alive and have more agency than others. I argue that part of the problem with existing anthropological treatments of the category “living things” is that they are either logical extrapolations through polythetic extension or based on formal taxonomic deduction/induction (ethnoscience). Using examples of meat-skewers, outboard motors, coconut graters, and sago-processing devices, together with certain forms of biological life such as fungi and algae, I demonstrate how Nuaulu ideas of what is animate and agentive are always fuzzy and contingent, and that by combining data from different kinds of ethnographic context, using different elicitation procedures, a more complex picture emerges.
  • Ellen, R. (2014). Jeremy Kemp (1941-2014). ASEASUK Newsletter -:8-9.
  • Benessaiah, N. and Ellen, R. (2014). An interview with Roy Ellen. Ethnobiology Letters [Online] 5:31-39. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.14237/ebl.5.2014.167.
    I decided to undertake this interview with Professor Ellen, simply because I thought such a distinguished career deserved to be marked as he was retiring. Roy was happy to make time for our interviews, in the form of loosely structured conversation which, like the Arabian Nights, Roy pointed out, could have gone on forever, but I decided to draw the line at three sessions. Perhaps it could, and will go on to form part of a more in-depth biography, as I continued to discover other aspects and adventures of Roy’s interesting life in the course of other contexts, much as one does in the field. Much is known about what ethnobiologists and anthropologists say about another people’s lives; less is known about their own, apart from rare reflections, diaries and memoires. I found Roy’s reflections a source of comfort as I embarked on my own PhD fieldwork, reassuring me as I fumbled around, making my own unique but comparable mistakes among the insights I gleaned. The following is an edited version of the original interview. I hope it will be as enjoyable to the reader as it was to me working on it.
  • Ellen, R. (2014). Pragmatism, identity and the state: how the Nuaulu of Seram have re-invented their beliefs and practices as ‘religion’. Wacana. Wacana: Jurnal Ilmu Pengetahuan Budaya [Online] 15:254-285. Available at: http://wacana.ui.ac.id/index.php/wjhi/article/view/403/374.
    The Dutch colonial state categorized animists and ancestor-worshippers and inscribed them into written records in ways that have had long-term effects. The immediate post-independence period in Maluku, despite early political turmoil, settled-down to a kind of stability under the New Order, the paradoxical outcome of which was both gradual integration of Nuaulu into a wider political and cultural consensus and conditions favouring economic change that undermined that consensus. The new policies of reformasi after 1998 presented further opportunities for Nuaulu to engage with the state in ways that promoted their interests. The opportunities were short-lived, however, given the implosive events of the communal unrest that lasted until 2001. This paper illustrates how this history has influenced Nuaulu self-perceptions and conceptualisation of themselves as a separate people with a “religion” that goes beyond simply adherence to adat, and how this process has been partly driven by demography and a desire for pragmatic accommodation.

    Pemerintah kolonial Belanda mengkategorikan penganut Animisme dan pemuja leluhur serta mendokumentasikan mereka dalam literatur atau dokumen tertulis sedemikian rupa sehingga memiliki efek jangka panjang. Periode pasca-kemerdekaan di Maluku -walaupun awalnya ada kekacauan politik- berlangsung teratur di bawah stabilitas pemerintahan Orde Baru, berlawanan dengan situasi orang Nuaulu sebagai hasil integrasi secara bertahap ke dalam konsensus politik dan budaya yang lebih luas serta dengan kondisi-kondisi perubahan ekonomi yang meruntuhkan konsensus itu. Kebijakan-kebijakan baru era reformasi setelah tahun 1998 memberikan kesempatan lebih jauh untuk orang Nuaulu terlibat dengan negara dalam hal menyokong kepentingan-kepentingan mereka. Namun kesempatan itu hanya sebentar karena pecahnya konflik komunal di Maluku yang berlangsung sampai tahun 2001. Tulisan ini menjelaskan bagaimana sejarah itu mempengaruhi persepsi-diri orang Nuaulu dan konseptualisasi diri mereka sebagai komunitas tersendiri dengan suatu “agama” yang melebihi ketaatan yang lazim terhadap adat, dan bagaimana proses ini sebagian disebabkan oleh keadaan demografi dan keinginan untuk penyesuaian secara pragmatis.
  • Osawa, Y. and Ellen, R. (2014). The cultural cognition of taste term conflation. The Senses and Society [Online] 9:72-91. Available at: http://www.dx.doi.org/10.2752/174589314X13834112761083.
    Languages vary in the number of descriptive terms for the four basic taste stimuli - sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and for the glutamate stimulus. Some languages regularly present terms that link sour/bitter, salt/sweet and glutamate/salty. However, in other languages where these tastes are lexically encoded speakers vary between each other, and in their ability to use terms consistently. What may seem like confusion we suggest might better be described as conflation resulting from changes in the ecology and culture of food. Moreover, these patterns highlight the underlying dynamic of taste cognition, and how variation associated with taste cognition arises. Using comparative data from secondary sources, freelisting tests and experimental data from a recent study of Japanese and British English speakers, this paper seeks to shed light on these issues.
  • Alcántara-Salinas, G., Ellen, R., Valiñas-Coalla, L., Caballero, J. and Argueta-Villamar, A. (2013). Alternative ways of representing Zapotec and Cuicatec folk classification of birds: a multidimensional model and its implications for culturally-informed conservation in Oaxaca, México. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine [Online] 9:1-16, plus two additional files. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-9-81.
    We report on a comparative ethno-ornithological study of Zapotec and Cuicatec communities in Northern Oaxaca, Mexico that provided a challenge to some existing descriptions of folk classification. Our default model was the taxonomic system of ranks developed by Brent Berlin.

    Fieldwork was conducted in the Zapotec village of San Miguel Tiltepec and in the Cuicatec village of San Juan Teponaxtla, using a combination of ethnographic interviews and pile-sorting tests. Post-fieldwork, Principal Component Analysis using NTSYSpc V. 2.11f was applied to obtain pattern variation for the answers from different participants.

    Results and conclusion
    Using language and pile-sorting data analysed through Principal Component Analysis, we show how both Zapotec and Cuicatec subjects place a particular emphasis on an intermediate level of classification. These categories group birds with non-birds using ecological and behavioral criteria, and violate a strict distinction between symbolic and mundane (or ‘natural’), and between ‘general-purpose’ and ‘single-purpose’ schemes. We suggest that shared classificatory knowledge embodying everyday schemes for apprehending the world of birds might be better reflected in a multidimensional model that would also provide a more realistic basis for developing culturally-informed conservation strategies.
  • Soselisa, H. and Ellen, R. (2013). The management of cassava toxicity and its changing sociocultural context in the Kei Islands, Eastern Indonesia. Ecology of Food and Nutrition [Online] 52:427-450. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03670244.2012.751913.
    Over a period of 150 years the Kei Islands have undergone environmental
    change, from rainforest to dryland savanna woodland.
    This has been accompanied by a shift in starch staple from sago,
    tubers, and grain to cassava. We show how this has been an effective
    ecological adaptation with social ramifications, not least the
    adoption of bitter cassava as a cultural identity marker. One of the
    problems of bitter cassava diets where people have become dependent
    upon them in poor parts of the Old World tropics are the effects
    of toxicity. We show how through a combination of factors and
    strategies this has not been a major issue in the Kei Islands, and
    how through a government-assisted agricultural project, attempts
    are being made to build upon this successful transition. The
    viability of present trends are evaluated.
  • Ellen, R. and Muthana, A. (2013). An experimental approach to understanding the ‘eolithic’ problem: cultural cognition and the perception of plausibly anthropic artifacts. Lithic Technology [Online] 38:109-123. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1179/0197726113Z.00000000013.
    The Eolithic controversy dominated debate about the earliest human tools between approximately 1880 and 1930, and raised acutely the difficulties of identifying stone that had been selected and modified for human or protohuman use. Similar issues in distinguishing artifacts from geofacts have persisted, making this more than a matter of arcane historical interest. This paper examines the thinking behind the claims made by British “eolithophiles” by using approaches developed in the study of cultural cognition. We report on a series of experiments conducted on non-artifactual material derived from the classic Kentish eolith-bearing deposits, and on specimens labeled “eoliths” in the Maidstone Museum.We demonstrate how the sorting behavior of research subjects provides evidence of “form selection” and perceptual pattern-recognition influenced by cultural experience, and how engaging interactively with the material indicates the importance of bodily actions in “thinking through” the functionality of objects.
  • Ellen, R. and Komaromi, R. (2013). Social exchange and vegetative propagation: an untold story of British potted plants. Anthropology Today [Online] 29:3-7. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8322.12002.
    Using data collected in Kent as part of the ‘British Homegardens Project’, we show how mode of reproduction in houseplants serves to increase biological fitness through selection and distribution through informal human social networks, and how those same modes lend themselves to the articulation and maintenance of social networks, instantiating memories and meanings, and providing opportunities for plant-based narratives
  • Ellen, R. (2013). ‘These rude implements’: competing claims for authenticity in the Eolithic controversy. Anthropology Quarterly [Online] 86:445-480. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/anq.2013.0029.
    The acceptance of eoliths as man-made is surprising, given that Victorian science had first dismissed the idea with respect to hand axes. I argue that scientific innovation involves an imaginative impulse that leads easily to over-optimistic interpretation, and that the eoliths were "invented" because they satisfied a requirement of a particular way of thinking. Once arguments in their favor had been accepted, the default "mindset" became one of disproving claims for human fabrication. The debate was conducted at a time when the rules of Pleistocene geology and archaeological interpretation were being established, and it determined the limit of what was scientifically credible.
  • Ellen, R., Soselisa, H. and Wulandari, A. (2012). The biocultural history of Manihot esculenta in the Moluccan islands of eastern Indonesia: assessing evidence for the movement and selection of cassava germplasm. Journal of Ethnobiology [Online] 32:157-184. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-32.2.157.
    This paper examines the circulation of cassava germplasm (Manihot esculenta) as a problem in biocultural history. It reviews how the plant was introduced into the Moluccan islands as part of the 'Columbian exchange' and how it has subsequently moved around through the distribution of stem cuttings. Using a combination of lexical, ethnographic, botanical and genetic data, including material from ecologically-contrasting field sites, it evaluates the evidence for tracking germplasm movement at the local and regional level, considers the extent to which this contributes to local agrobiological diversity, and reflects upon some methodological problems of integrating sociocultural and scientific evidence. © Society of Ethnobiology 2012.
  • Ellen, R. and Soselisa, H. (2012). A comparative study of the socio-ecological concomitants of cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz): diversity, local knowledge and management in eastern Indonesia. Ethnobotany Research and Applications [Online] 10:15-35. Available at: http://www.ethnobotanyjournal.org/vol10/i1547-3465-10-015.pdf.
    We compare cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) diversity, local knowledge and management practices in two eastern Indonesian populations that differ both ecologically and socioculturally (Nuaulu on the island of Seram, and Debut in the Kei archipelago) and make some reference to a third population (Buano, west of Seram). The report is set within the wider problem of understanding the differences and similarities between M. esculenta in its homeland (South America) and in its diaspora, and specifically in island Southeast Asia. We show how under different conditions the importance of diversity and of toxicity varies, and how in particular this is related to environmental degradation and biocultural aspects of food ecology.
  • Ellen, R. and Latinis, D. (2012). Ceramic sago ovens and the history of regional trading patterns in eastern Indonesia and the Papuan coast. Indonesia and the Malay World [Online] 40:20-38. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13639811.2011.648994.
    The extraction and processing of palm starch is an ancient technology in island Southeast Asia and New Guinea, but its archaeological signature is weak. This article outlines the evidence for the distribution of ceramic ovens used for cooking sago flour, a possible diagnostic marker in archaeological deposits. In relation to available archaeological evidence (including new radiocarbon dates), we examine the hypothesis that the origin of this distinctive equipment predated the European period. We confirm the existence of sago ovens from pre-European contexts, and suggest an endogenous protohistoric origin rather than an exogenous historic origin. We conclude that the growth and dispersal of ceramic ovens were linked to changes in local trading patterns associated with the increase in the production of cloves, nutmeg and other commodities for European and Asian markets, and expansion along the Papuan coasts by Moluccan traders.
  • Ellen, R. (2012). Studies of swidden agriculture in Southeast Asia since 1960: an overview and commentary on recent research and sytheses. Asia Pacific World [Online] 3:18-38. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/apw.2012.030103.
    Research in Southeast Asia has played a major role in developing our understanding of swidden agriculture. This paper reviews work that has appeared since the 1960s, and other recent reviews. It considers definitions and variations, changing theoretical styles, swiddening as a cultural form, and how ecological composition interfaces with social dynamics. It discusses the subject through dominant and contesting political discourses, and in the context of environmental conservation. It examines changes in the context of policy and recent history, and asks why swidden cultivation persists when the prevailing view has long been that it will rapidly disappear.


  • Ellen, R. (2018). Kinship, Population and Social Reproduction in the ’new Indonesia’: A Study of Nuaulu Cultural Resilience. [Online]. Abingdon, UK; New York, USA: Routledge. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Kinship-population-and-social-reproduction-in-the-new-Indonesia-A-study/Ellen/p/book/9781138493872.
    Nuaulu people on the Indonesian island of Seram have displayed remarkable linguistic and cultural resilience over a period of 50 years. In 1970 their language and traditional culture was widely considered ‘endangered.’ Despite this, Nuaulu have not only maintained their animist identity and shown a robust ability to reproduce 'traditional' ritual performances, but have exhibited both population growth and increasing assertiveness in the projection of their interests through the politics of the ‘New Indonesia’.

    This book examines how kinship organization and marriage patterns have responded to some of these challenges, and suggests that the retention of core institutions of descent and exchange are the consequence of population growth, which in turn has enabled ritual reproduction, and thereby effectively maintained a distinct identity in relation to the surrounding majority culture. Low conversion rates to other religions, and the political consequences of Indonesian ‘reformasi’, have also contributed to a situation in which, despite changes in the material basis of their lives, Nuaulu have projected a strong independent identity and organisation. In terms of debates around kinship in eastern Indonesia, this book argues that older notions of prescriptive social structure are fundamentally flawed. Kinship institutions are real enough, but the distinction between genealogical and classificatory relations is often unimportant; all that matters in the end is that the arrangements entered into between clans and houses permit both biological and social reproduction, and that the latter ultimately serves the former.
  • Ellen, R. (2012). Nuaulu Religious Practices: The Frequency and Reproduction of Rituals in a Moluccan Society. [Online]. Vol. 356. Leiden: KITLV Press. Available at: http://oapen.org/search?identifier=421930.
    How religious practices are reproduced has become a major theoretical issue. This work examines data on Nuaulu ritual performances collected over a 30 year period, comparing different categories of event in terms of frequency and periodicity. It seeks to identify the influencing factors and the consequences for continuity. Such an approach enables a focus on related issues: variation in performance, how rituals change in relation to material and social conditions, the connections between different ritual types, the way these interact as cycles, and the extent to which fidelity of transmission is underpinned by a common model or repertoire of elements. This monograph brings to completion a long-term study of the religious behaviour of the Nuaulu, a people of the island of Seram in the Indonesian province of Maluku. Ethnographically, it is important for several reasons: the Nuaulu are one of the few animist societies remaining on Seram; the data emphasize patterns of practices in a part of Indonesia where studies have hitherto been more concerned with meaning and symbolic classification; and because Nuaulu live in an area where recent political tension has been between Christians and Muslims. Nuaulu are, paradoxically, both caught between these two groups, and apart from them. Roy Ellen is Professor of Anthropology and Human Ecology at the University of Kent, a Fellow of The British Academy, and was president of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 2007 and 2011. He was trained at the London School of Economics and at the University of Leiden. Among his other books are The cultural relations of classification (on Nuaulu animal categories) and On the edge of the Banda zone (on trade in east Seram).

Book section

  • Ellen, R. (2019). Contrasting acoustical signatures and the power in ritual: Nuaulu spirit healing in the Moluccan islands. In: Porath, N. ed. Hearing Southeast Asia: Sounds of Hierarchy and Power in Context. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, pp. 174-201. Available at: https://www.niaspress.dk/books/hearing-southeast-asia.
    Different kinds of Nuaulu ritual activity are accompanied by distinctive acoustical signatures that can be separated out from a more synesthetic profile of sensory experience. The main ceremonial cycles of maturation and sacred house-building are punctuated by rituals where the role of sound is predictable and consistent with highly-structured and pre-planned actions and exchanges. These events reinforce a model of conventional Austronesian hierarchical relations of power and precedence within and between clans and houses, and between houses and their ancestral guardians. By contrast, shamanic séances (while involving some of the symbolic practices shared by other rituals) allow for more informality and spontaneity. This is no better evident than in the accompanying sounds: the intermittent sonorousness of the bamboo mouth harp used to summon spirits, the utterances and para-linguistic features of shamanic speech behaviour, and the sometimes alarming and unpredictable acoustical consequences of bodily movement. I suggest that these sessions, in addition to the healing purposes that they serve, provide a kind of counterpoint of anti-structure that reinforces the importance of structure and of predictable power relations in the major rituals that reproduce Nuaulu life. Séances send ambivalent messages. They are necessary to communicate with the spirit world, but at the same time are an ever-present reminder of the potential for existential chaos. Much of Nuaulu ritual activity can be seen as a way of keeping such unpredictable forces in check.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Firth, Raymond (1901-2002). In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 2304-2307. Available at: http://lccn.loc/gov/201 703 0366.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Regional systems. In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 5059-5061. Available at: http://lccn.loc/gov/201 703 0366.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Cultural adaptation. In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 1282-1288. Available at: http://lccn.loc/gov/201 703 0366.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Ecological anthropology. In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 1705-1707. Available at: http://lccn.loc/gov/201 703 0366.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Ethnobiology. In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 1977-1980. Available at: http://lccn.loc/gov/201 703 0366.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Ethnoscience. In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 2086-2087. Available at: http://lccn.loc/gov/201 703 0366.
  • Ellen, R. (2018). Settlement patterns. In: Callan, H. ed. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 5422-5423. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.
  • Ellen, R. (2017). Contingency and adaptation over five decades in Nuaulu forest-based plant knowledge. In: Sillitoe, P. ed. Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing Its Contribution to Natural Resource Management. Wallingford, Oxfordshire: CAB International, pp. 28-39.
    Older studies of local knowledge in traditional societies often describe it as if it were a fixed ahistorical quantum. But we now know enough about the systems in which such knowledge is embedded to realise that, on the contrary, it presents a dynamic changing landscape, constantly altering in response to new circumstances and events; less a ‘thing’ than a process of continual engagement. This paper explores several ways in which the forest knowledge of the Nuaulu (a people of central Seram in the eastern Indonesian province of the Moluccas) has shifted over the last five decades, while in other ways has remained remarkably stable. The argument is illustrated with reference to three very different examples – the genus Canarium harvested for its proteinaceous nuts, the category ‘firewood’, and rattan as a construction material - but in the common context of how forest as a more encompassing cultural and ecological entity is being transformed in people’s material and social lives.
  • Ellen, R. (2017). Tools, agency and the category of living things. In: Pommerening, T. and Bisang, W. eds. Classification from Antiquity to Modern Times: Sources, Methods, and Theories from an Interdisciplinary Perspective. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 239-262.
  • Ellen, R. (2017). Categorizing natural objects : some issues arising from recent work in cognitive anthropology and ethnobiological classification. In: Pommerening, T. and Bisang, W. eds. Classification from Antiquity to Modern Times : Sources, Methods, and Theories from an Interdisciplinary Perspective. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 263-277.
  • Ellen, R. (2017). Rethinking the relationship between studies of ethnobiological knowledge and the evolution of human cultural cognition. In: Power, C., Finnegan, M. and Callan, H. eds. Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology. Oxford, New York: Berghahn, pp. 59-83.
    Recent projects to reclaim social anthropology for the study of human origins have little to say about cognition of the natural world, while work on the cultural origins of human cognition has paid slight attention to ethnographic data on the organisation of everyday practices. Yet, how early humans organised their knowledge of biota was crucial for certain key adaptations at successive thresholds of evolutionary change. Using comparative work on the perception, engagement and management of biota amongst peoples living in varied environmental and social contexts, and recent theory in psychology, anthropology and ethnobiology, this paper offers a critical review of studies of biological knowledge systems as applied to our understanding of human evolution.
  • Ellen, R. (2016). Foreword. In: Hurn, S. ed. Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters With Mysterious Creatures. Abingdon, UK.: Routledge, p. xiv-xvi.
  • Ellen, R. (2016). The cultural cognition of time: Some anthropological perspectives. In: Lewandowskas-Tomoszczyk, B. ed. Conceptualizations of Time. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 125-149. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/hcp.52.
  • Vázquez, D., Salinas, G., Coalla, L., Ellen, R., Pliego, P. and Stanley, K. (2014). La etnoclassificatión de la aves de los Zapotecos del Rincón, Oaxaca, México. In: Vásquez-Dávila, M. ed. Aves, Personas Y Culturas: Estudios De Etno-Ornitologia 1. Oaxaca, Mexico: CONACYT, pp. 207-227.
  • Ellen, R. and Fischer, M. (2013). Introduction: On the Concept of Cultural Transmission. In: Lycett, S. J. and Johns, S. E. eds. Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical Synthesis. Oxford: Berghahn, Oxford. Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Understanding-Cultural-Transmission-Anthropology-Methodology/dp/178238071X.
  • Humle, T. and Newton-Fisher, N. (2013). Culture in Non-human Primates: Definitions and Evidence. In: Ellen, R. F., Lycett, S. J. and Johns, S. E. eds. Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical Synthesis. Berghahn Books.
    The attribution of culture to non-human animals has been controversial and continues to fuel much heated debate, much of which hinges on how culture is defined. We illustrate how definitions have become less human-centric as observations from wild primates have led to a new discipline – cultural primatology – and challenged the idea of culture as uniquely human. Although cultural primatology has it roots in field studies of wild primates, the weight of captive studies across a variety of species has resulted in a comparative view of culture which emphasises the mechanism of transmission. We argue that, while this has broadened the species and behaviours that have been considered ‘cultural’, it weakens the usefulness of comparative studies in understanding the evolutionary origins of human culture. We prefer a definition that centres on the concept of culture as an array of behaviour patterns across multiple domains that vary between groups or populations due to differing histories of social transmission. We argue for the necessity of field studies of wild primates in the comparative study of culture, providing examples of how such studies allow both the identification of cultures across non-human primate social groups and the mechanisms by which behaviours are transmitted both within and between groups. Such studies are essential for an ecologically valid understanding of culture, and to investigate how social dynamics, ecology and demographics shape culture and the diffusion and dissemination of socially learned behaviours.
  • Puri, R. (2013). Transmitting Penan basketry knowledge and practice. In: Ellen, R. F., Lycett, S. J. and Johns, S. E. eds. Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 266-299. Available at: http://www.berghahnbooks.com/title.php?rowtag=EllenUnderstanding.
    This chapter describes Penan (Indonesian Borneo) basket making and the way it is simultaneously adapting to new circumstances while still maintaining continuity with past traditions. The explanation for this continuity resides in the complex intersections of processes of cultural transmission and the sociocultural and economic contexts in which they occur. Of particular importance is the way in which Penan egalitarianism opens up the possibilities for simultaneous transmission and transformation of basketry practices between and within the generations.
  • Ellen, R. and Fischer, M. (2013). Introduction: on the concept of cultural transmission. In: Ellen, R. F., Lycett, S. J. and Johns, S. E. eds. Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical Synthesis. New York, Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 1-54.
  • Ellen, R. and Soselisa, H. (2012). Cassava diversity and toxicity in relation to environmental degradation: a feature of food security in the Moluccas, Indonesia. In: Hornidge, A.-K. and Antweiler, C. eds. Environmental Uncertainty and Local Knowledge: Southeast Asia As a Laboratory of Global Ecological Change. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 215-242.
  • Ellen, R. (2012). Archipelagic Southeast Asia. In: Fardon, R., Harris, O., Marchand, T. H. J., Nuttall, M., Shore, C., Strang, V. and Wilson, R. A. eds. The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology. London: SAGE, pp. 422-442. Available at: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book233066.

Edited book

  • Ellen, R., Lycett, S. and Johns, S. (2013). Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical Synthesis. Vol. 26. Ellen, R. F., Lycett, S. J. and Johns, S. E. eds. New York, Oxford: Berghahn.


  • Fenton, L. (2016). ’Bushcraft’ and ’Indigenous Knowledge’: Transformations of a Concept in the Modern World.
    The relationship between 'bushcraft' and 'indigenous knowledge' is investigated through a historical review, an examination of ethnographic literature, fieldwork amongst bushcraft practitioners, and through original case studies. Fieldwork was carried out in Sweden, the USA, and the UK. Case studies of the Saami 'kuksa', the 'figure 4' deadfall trap, and making fire by friction are used to explore a number of themes in the contemporary bushcraft world: the role of skilled-practice, ethical values, notions of an individually experienced connection with nature, practice as a personal transformative experience, and as an intersubjective relationship between practitioner and craft engagement with the material affordances in the landscape. It is argued that motivations for practice foreground a relationship with an environmental experience that counters 'alienation' through the development of techniques required to spend un-insulated time in nature which counter modern Western technocratic lifestyles. Bushcraft destabilises apparently similar categories of activity, particularly tourism, outdoor adventure recreation and education, historical re-enactment and survivalism.
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