Barkcloth Painting

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Joshua A. Bell, Ph.D.

Joshua A. Bell works with Eric Vai'i and other community members of Mapaio village in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea to document the local names and uses of trees

Image Courtesy of Joshua A. Bell, photograph by Sebastian Haraha, 2010

Dr. Joshua A. Bell first became interested in cultural anthropology while teaching archaeology to undergraduates on a summer excavation in Bir Ftouha, Tunisia, after graduating from Brown University in 1996. During the excavation, he became more interested in the Tunisian workmen's understanding of the excavation and the role of heritage in their lives. He went on to get his master's and doctorate degrees at the University of Oxford, and, after teaching for three years at the University of East Anglia, he joined the Museum in 2008. Throughout his career he has been interested in people's relationships with and through their material world over time. These interests have entailed examining the historic and contemporary cultural politics of architecture in Hawai'i; living and working with communities in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea since 2000 to document their ways of life, environmental knowledge, histories and the social transformations of resource extraction; and working with collaborators at George Washington University to understand the global and local meanings and uses of mobile phones. Alongside of this work, he has been documenting the histories of various collections in the museum. He currently serves as a research scientist and Curator of Globalization at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where he is the Director of the Recovering Voices Program.

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A woman in native dress weaves a blanket on a vertical loom
Photo Lot 59, LOC, Small Mounts, Tribe Id, Navaho, Weaving 03282300, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

About Textiles

One characteristic unique to humans is the use of textiles for clothing, decorative purposes, and art. Archaeologists have found evidence of textile use as early as 100,000 years ago, mostly in the form of animal pelts. Beginning in 5000 B.C. other fabrics emerged such as cotton, silk and linen. Textiles can be used by people in many different contexts. Depending on the fabric and manufacturing process they can indicate the status or wealth of an individual. The design or adornments, such as beadwork, can also be used to indicate family or group affiliation of an individual, and can give clues to the social organization of the particular society. Many cultures have special textiles that are used or worn by participants in religious or ceremonial contexts. For example, women in South Africa, like many regions of the world, are often given specific clothing items by their families to wear on the day of their wedding. Textiles have also been important in trade and commerce in most countries throughout the world. For example, a famous trade route, the Silk Road, named for the lucrative trade in silk thread and fabric operated in various forms over the past 2,000 years connecting Asia to the Mediterranean. Textiles can also be used as a type of art or as a medium for telling stories or depicting historical events.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

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