Male Ancestor Figure

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.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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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?

A mask dancer performs a traditional Indonesian dance
Photographs courtesy of Dr. Mark Hobart

About Ceremonies and Rituals

Cultures around the world observe different rituals and ceremonies. These can occur for a variety of reasons, but they all serve a significant purpose for participants. Some rituals and ceremonies are related to religious practices, such as the complex dances of the Hopi people of the American Southwest. In these rituals, the Hopi believe that the dancers actually become the Katsina ancestors or spiritual messengers. These rituals are used to honor the ancestors and acknowledge their role in bringing rainfall. Other ceremonies and rituals are essential to social relations within and between communities. For example, tribes of the Northwest coast of North America celebrate life events through a festival feast and gathering known as a potlatch. This allows for the members of the communities to redistribute wealth among them and reconnect. Status in these ceremonies is granted to those who give the most, not those who are given the most. In what sort of ceremonies or rituals does your culture or family participate?