School of Anthropology & Conservation

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Professor Roy Ellen

Professor of Anthropology & Human Ecology

Retired, Emeritus Professor


profile image for Professor Roy Ellen

I was trained at the London School of Economics as a social anthropologist, though have long been committed to an anthropology that addresses the 'big issues' about what it is to be human. My 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. I have also worked in Sulawesi, Java, Brunei and in the UK.

Throughout my career I have 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. I have also worked on the ecological and social dynamics of inter-island trading systems.

My 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.

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Also view these in the Kent Academic Repository

Ellen, R. (2018). Kinship, population and social reproduction in the 'new Indonesia': A study of Nuaulu cultural resilience. Abingdon, UK; New York, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from
Ellen, R. (2012). Nuaulu religious practices: the frequency and reproduction of rituals in a Moluccan society (Vol. 356). Leiden: KITLV Press. Retrieved from
Book section
Ellen, R. (2017). Tools, agency and the category of living things. In T. Pommerening & Bisang, W. (Eds.), Classification from antiquity to modern times: sources, methods, and theories from an interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 239-262). Berlin: De Gruyter.
Ellen, R. (2017). Contingency and adaptation over five decades in Nuaulu forest-based plant knowledge. In P. Sillitoe (Ed.), Indigenous knowledge: enhancing its contribution to natural resource management (pp. 28-39). Wallingford, Oxfordshire: CAB International.
Ellen, R. (2017). Categorizing natural objects : some issues arising from recent work in cognitive anthropology and ethnobiological classification. In T. Pommerening & Bisang, W. (Eds.), Classification from antiquity to modern times : sources, methods, and theories from an interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 263-277). Berlin: De Gruyter.
Ellen, R. (2017). Rethinking the relationship between studies of ethnobiological knowledge and the evolution of human cultural cognition. In C. Power, Finnegan, M., & Callan, H. (Eds.), Human origins: contributions from social anthropology (Vol. 30, pp. 59-83). Oxford, New York: Berghahn.
Ellen, R. (2016). Foreword. In S. Hurn (Ed.), Anthropology and cryptozoology: exploring encounters with mysterious creatures. (p. xiv-xvi). Abingdon, UK.: Routledge.
Ellen, R., & Fischer, M. (2013). Introduction: on the concept of cultural transmission. In R. F. Ellen, Lycett, S. J., & Johns, S. E. (Eds.), Understanding cultural transmission in anthropology: a critical synthesis (pp. 1-54). New York, Oxford: Berghahn.
Ellen, R., & Fischer, M. (2013). Introduction: On the Concept of Cultural Transmission. In S. J. Lycett & Johns, S. E. (Eds.), Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical synthesis. (Vol. 26). Oxford: Berghahn, Oxford. Retrieved from
Ellen, R., & Soselisa, H. (2012). Cassava diversity and toxicity in relation to environmental degradation: a feature of food security in the Moluccas, Indonesia. In A. -K. Hornidge & Antweiler, C. (Eds.), Environmental uncertainty and local knowledge: Southeast Asia as a laboratory of global ecological change (pp. 215-242). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Ellen, R. (2012). Archipelagic Southeast Asia. In R. Fardon, Harris, O., Marchand, T. H. J., Nuttall, M., Shore, C., Strang, V., & Wilson, R. A. (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology (Vol. 1, pp. 422-442). London: SAGE. Retrieved from
Ellen, R. (2011). 'Indigenous knowledge' and the understanding of cultural cognition: the contribution of studies of environmental knowledge systems. In D. B. Kronenfeld, Bennardo, G., De Munck, V. C., & Fischer, M. D. (Eds.), A companion to cognitive anthropology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Ellen, R. (2011). Sago as a buffer against subsistence stress and as a currency of inter-island trade networks in eastern Indonesia. In G. Barker & Janowski, M. (Eds.), Why cultivate? Anthropological and archaeological approaches to foraging-farming transitions in Southeast Asia (pp. 47-60). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
Ellen, R. (2009). Classification. In A. Barnard & Spencer, J. (Eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (pp. 129-133). London and New York: Routledge.
Ellen, R. (2009). Indigenous knowledge. In A. Barnard & Spencer, J. (Eds.), The Routledge encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology (pp. 375-377). London, New York: Routledge.
Ellen, R. (2009). Why aren't the Nuaulu like the Matsigenka? Knowledge and categorization of forest diversity on Seram, eastern Indonesia. In L. M. Johnson & Hunn, E. S. (Eds.), Landscape ethnoecology: concepts of biotic and physical space (pp. 116-140). New York, Oxford: Berghahn.
Ellen, R. (2008). Andrew P. Vayda. In V. Amit (Ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology. (pp. 553-554). London: Routledge.
Iskandar, J., & Ellen, R. (2007). Innovation, 'hybrid' knowledge and the conservation of relict rainforest in upland Banten. In R. F. Ellen (Ed.), Modern Crises and Traditional Strategies: Local Ecological Knowledge in Island Southeast Asia (pp. 133-142). Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Edited book
Ellen, R. F., Lycett, S. J., & Johns, S. E. (Eds.). (2013). Understanding cultural transmission in anthropology: a critical synthesis (Vol. 26). New York, Oxford: Berghahn.
Ellen, R., & Puri, R. (2017). Conceptualising 'core' medicinal flora: A comparative and methodological study of phytomedical resources in related Indonesian populations. Conservation And Society, 14, 345-358. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.197608
Ellen, R., & O'Neill, A. (2017). Interview with Professor Roy Ellen, Distinguished Economic Botanist 2017. Plants And People: Society For Economic Botany Newsletter, 31, 4-5. Retrieved from
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, 82, 308-330. doi:10.1080/00141844.2015.1052085
Ellen, R., & Puri, R. (2017). Conceptualising 'core' medicinal floras: A comparative and methodological study of phytomedical resources in related Indonesian populations. Conservation And Society, 14, 345-358. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.197608
Ellen, R. (2016). Harold Colyer Conklin, 1926-2016: an appreciation. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute.
Ellen, R. (2016). Nuaulu ritual regulation of resources, sasi and forest conservation in eastern Indonesia. South East Asia Research, 24, 5-22. doi:10.5367/sear.2016.0290
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.
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, 15, 254-285. Retrieved from
Ellen, R. (2014). Jeremy Kemp (1941-2014). Aseasuk Newsletter, -, 8-9.
Benessaiah, N., & Ellen, R. (2014). An interview with Roy Ellen. Ethnobiology Letters, 5, 31-39. doi:10.14237/ebl.5.2014.167
Osawa, Y., & Ellen, R. (2014). The cultural cognition of taste term conflation. The Senses And Society, 9, 72-91. doi:10.2752/174589314X13834112761083
Alcántara-Salinas, G., Ellen, R., Valiñas-Coalla, L., Caballero, J., & 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, 9, 1-16, plus two additional files. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-9-81
Ellen, R. (2013). 'These rude implements': competing claims for authenticity in the Eolithic controversy. Anthropology Quarterly, 86, 445-480. doi:10.1353/anq.2013.0029
Soselisa, H., & Ellen, R. (2013). The management of cassava toxicity and its changing sociocultural context in the Kei Islands, Eastern Indonesia. Ecology Of Food And Nutrition, 52, 427-450. doi:10.1080/03670244.2012.751913
Ellen, R., & Komaromi, R. (2013). Social exchange and vegetative propagation: an untold story of British potted plants. Anthropology Today, 29, 3-7. doi:10.1111/1467-8322.12002
Ellen, R., & Muthana, A. (2013). An experimental approach to understanding the 'eolithic' problem: cultural cognition and the perception of plausibly anthropic artifacts. Lithic Technology, 38, 109-123. doi:10.1179/0197726113Z.00000000013
Ellen, R., Soselisa, H., & 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, 32, 157-184. doi:10.2993/0278-0771-32.2.157
Ellen, R., & 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, 10, 15-35. Retrieved from
Ellen, R., & 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, 40, 20-38. doi:10.1080/13639811.2011.648994
Ellen, R. (2012). Studies of swidden agriculture in Southeast Asia since 1960: an overview and commentary on recent research and sytheses. Asia Pacific World, 3, 18-38. doi:10.3167/apw.2012.030103
Ellen, R. (2011). The eolith debate, evolutionist anthropology and the Oxford connection between 1880 and 1940. History And Anthropology, 22, 277-306. doi:10.1080/02757206.2011.595007
Ellen, R. (2011). The place of the eolithic controversy in the anthropology of Alfred Russel Wallace. Linnean, 27, 22-33. Retrieved from
Ellen, R., & Muthana, A. (2011). Classifying 'eoliths': how cultural cognition featured in arguments surrounding claims for the earliest human artefacts as these developed between 1880 and 1900. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 10, 341-375. doi:10.1163/156853710X531221
Ellen, R., & Platten, S. (2011). The social life of seeds: the role of networks of relationships in the dispersal and cultural selection of plant germplasm. Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute, 17, 563-584. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2011.01707.x
Ellen, R. (2010). Theories in anthropology and 'anthropological theory'. Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute, 16, 387-404.
Ellen, R., & Soemarwoto, R. (2010). Gold mining and changing perceptions of risk in West Java. Human Organization, 69, 233-241.
Ellen, R. (2009). A modular approach to understanding the transmission of technical knowledge: Nuaulu basket-making from Seram, eastern Indonesia. Journal Of Material Culture, 14, 243-277. doi:10.1177/1359183509103065
Ellen, R. (2008). The Nuaulu kahuae. Saka Mese: Surat Berita-Berita Perkumpulan Anak-Anak Lounusa Maatita Di Belanda, 4, 12-13.
Ellen, R. (2008). Ethnomycology among the Nuaulu of the Moluccas: putting Berlin's 'General Principles' of Ethnobiological Classification to the test. Economic Botany, 62, 483-496.
Ellen, R. (2008). Distribution and variation in sago extraction equipment: convergent and secondary technologies in island southeast Asia. Archaeology In Oceania, 43, 62-74.
Ellen, R. (2008). Anthropology and its subdivisions in relation to contemporary human science. Ethnologie Française, 38, 591-595. doi:10.3917/ethn.084.0591
Showing 50 of 97 total publications in KAR. [See all in KAR]


A list of book and film reviews can be found here.

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My main current research and writing commitments arise from four recent and current grants:

In addition I continue to work on Nuaulu ethnobotany, ethnobioloical classification, cultural cognition and knowledge transmission.

External Research Awards


SSRC Studentship, 1968-71


Galton Foundation, 1969

London-Cornell Scheme, 1969

Central Research Fund of the University of London, 1969-71, 1973


Hayter Travel Award, 1973: fieldwork on Seram, academic visits to Universiti Nasional Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok

British Council Travel Grant (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst), 1973: academic visits to University of Leiden, Instituut voor den Tropen (Amsterdam), Frei-Universität, Berlin, Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, Frobenius-Institut, Frankfurt-am-Main, Universität Heidelberg


SSRC Research Grant, 1975-77: Nuaulu ethnobiology and ecology


British Academy Grant, 1977: subvention towards publication of ‘Nuaulu settlement and ecology’ : £1,000


British Academy Grant (British Institute in Southeast Asia), 1981: fieldwork in the Central Moluccas: £2,201

South East Asia Travel Grant, University of Kent at Canterbury, 1981: fieldwork in the Moluccas, archival research in Java


British Council, 1984: academic travel grant for archival research in the Netherlands


British Council, February-March 1985: academic travel grant to teach at Andalas University, Padang, West Sumatra

Nuffield Social Science Research Fellowship for research on 'Change and the social organization of regional trading networks in the Moluccas', 1985-86: £12,762


Academic visit by Professor John Clammer to the UK: £1,500


Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research: Towards First Canterbury Symposium on Southeast Asian Studies: £2,755

British Academy: Towards First Canterbury Symposium on Southeast Asian Studies: £800


Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research: travel grant in support of academic visit to University of Washington, St Louis: £350

British Academy: in support of academic visit to University of Washington, St Louis: £350

ESRC Research Grant, 1991-94: The ecology and ethnobiology of human-rainforest interaction in Brunei: £61,570; £7850


British Academy: Tropical rainforest: current issues, Universiti Brunei Darussalam: £650


As part of consortium for EU-funded programme: Avenir des peuples de forêts tropicales, 1994-2000: various grants totally approximately €1,828,960 = £1,143,100


ESRC Research Grant, 1995-1998 Deforestation and forest knowledge in south central Seram, eastern Indonesia: £50,650


European Science Foundation grant for UKC conference on 'Indigenous environmental knowledge and its transformations’, 1996


European Science Foundation: Workshop on a critical examination of the uses and abuses of indigenous environmental knowledge and its transformations: FF97,832


ESRC Grant, 2001-2004 Frequency and periodicity in Nuaulu ritual reproduction: £100,002


ESRC (with M. Fischer and others), 2002-5: Interactive Data Collection, Reproduction/Transmission of Environmental Knowledge: £158,000

British Academy: Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology: £650

Nuffield Foundation (with M. Alexiades), 2002-5: Environmental Knowledge, Perception and Social Interaction in an Amazonian Landscape: £100,000


Wenner-Gren Foundation: for Ninth International Congress of Ethnobiology, Canterbury: $14,548

Eden Project Ltd: for Ninth International Congress of Ethnobiology, Canterbury: £10,000

British Academy: for Ninth International Congress of Ethnobiology, Canterbury: £1560

International Plant Genetics Resources Institute: for Ninth International Congress of Ethnobiology, Canterbury: £2500

Royal Anthropological Institute: for Ninth International Congress of Ethnobiology, Canterbury: £2000


ESRC 2004-8:(with Gary Martin and Rachel Kaleta) Arar woodcarving: the socio-economic status, sustainable use and conservation of Tetraclinis articulata, a 'cultural keystone species' in southern Morocco (CASE studentship with the Eden Project): £21,000


ESRC, 2005-7: The ethnography, ethnobotany and dispersal of palm starch extraction: £37,276

British Academy: subvention for British Association Festival of Science, Dublin: £1600

Royal Anthropological Institute: subvention for British Association Festival of Science, Dublin: £750


British Council: to deliver lectures and research consultancy in Hyderabad, India: £1000

ESRC (with S. Klappa), 2006-7: Fallow Farming: Exploring Various Dimensions of LOng-term Land Use: £31,657

British Academy: International Congress of Ethnobiology - Biocultural Diversity and Ethnobiology,- Contemporary Issues and Challenges: £700

COST Action 31, ‘Stability and adaptation of classification systems in cross-cultural perspective’, 2006-9


(with D. Novellino and M. Alexiades) The Christensen Fund, 2007-9: Field Methods for Isolated Communities: $118,000

British Academy, 2007-8: The eolithic controversy as a problem in the history of science, and of archaeology in particular: an approach from cognitive anthropology

(with P. Locke) British Academy: American Anthropological Association Meeting: £400

Leverhulme Trust, 2007-2010: The Ethnobotany of British Homegardens: diversity, knowledge and exchange: £151,616

Royal Anthropological Institute (with D. Novellino): Enabling the Indigenous Voice: £17,200


(with S. Klappa) British Academy/Association of Commonwealth Universities: Archaeology and human Ecology of Sago Management, Production and Trade in the Kikori Region, Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea: £4983


British Academy (South East Asia Committee), 2009-2011: A comparative study of the sociocultural concomitants of cassava diversity in four eastern Indonesian populations in relation to environmental security: £4000

The Christensen Fund (with D. Novellino), 2009-12: Linking Networks on Pastoralism and Mobile Production Systems: $150,000


British Academy (with R. Puri): New Directions for Urgent Anthropological Research: £8,700


British Academy: Demography, kinship and ritual reproduction: Nuaulu cultural resilience in the ‘New Indonesia: £10,000

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Recently completed:

Graciela ALCÁNTARA-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.

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

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

Nationally, I 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. I was a Council Member of the British Academy between 2009 and 2012, and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 2007-2011. I am currently a Vice President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, a member of its Council and Chair of the Manuscripts and Archives Committee. Internationally, I am a member of the Darrell Posey Awards Committee of the International Society of Ethnobiology, and Assistant Editor on the Wiley ‘International Encyclopedia of Anthropology’.

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Last Updated: 04/06/2018