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“Dis moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”
(Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are)

This widely known aphorism has its origin in the preamble of Brillat Savarin’s indispensable Physiologie du goût (Physiology of taste) that was firstly published in 1848. It is an excellent compendium of how anthropology of food has paved the way of my scientific career over the past three decades. I conducted collaborative research on biocultural interactions between forest dwelling societies and various humid forest zones of Africa and Southeast Asia. I have been guided by the constant concern of transcending disciplinary boundaries—of anthropology, botany, zoology, archaeology, pharmacology, geography, sociology, linguistics, and related fields—in order to assess the complex relationships that exist between human societies and their plant and animal environments. I have also taken care to carry out my research with the educated prior informed consent of my local informants and in an ethical manner that does not harm their biological and cultural integrity.
Food systems have always formed the epicenter of my research framework in order to catch the adaptive strategies elaborated locally as a response to a changing environment. What is at stake encompasses much more than just the absorption of nutrients in order to meet physiological needs. In essence, food is a total social fact as it allows to study tight interconnections between (i) health, (ii) nutritional status, (iii) biology ad ecology of resources, (iv) land use system and (v) cultural choices.

Food matrix

Food system: a total social fact (from Dounias 2008)

I have been conducting food surveys among rural ethnic groups that are no longer in a situation of pristine isolation and have become involved in a broader cash and market economy during the past half-century.
My first experience of anthropology of food took place in southern and coastal Cameroon where I carried out my graduate, postgraduate and doctoral research activities (from 1984 to 1993). This coastal evergreen forest hosts three societies, which have elaborated distinct subsistence economies: the Mvae are predominantly shifting cultivators and trappers; the Yasa are settled along the coast and give priority to marine fishing activities; the Kola Pygmies still valorize hunting and gathering and seasonally abandon their permanent camps along the road to move around and depend solely on forest resources.
After my recruitment at the French Research Institute for Development (
IRD), I coordinated another research program located in the forest and savannah boundary of central Cameroon (1994 to 1998). This dynamic ecosystem—afforestation gains between 1 and 3 meters every year, so changes of ecosystem can be visible in less than two decades—is home to 4,500 Tikar people who live in close relationship with a small group of 350 Bedzan Pygmies. Three hundred years ago, the Tikar farmers moved further south from their native savannahs and came into contact with the Bedzan who taught them how to make a living in the forest. At first sight, the Bedzan seem subjugated by the Tikar, and are socially confined at the lowest layer of the stratified political system of their masters. But they are in fact in league with the supernatural forces that inhabit the forest. This connivance is a grant of symbolic power that counterbalances their misleading servility.
My third major fieldwork prominently based on food surveys took place in the Indonesian part of Borneo island after being seconded to the Center for International Forestry Research (
CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia (2001-2006). I conducted a collaborative research program on the nutritional ecology of the Punan former nomadic hunter-gatherers roaming the lowland forests of East Kalimantan. I compared two Punan communities of the same origin, language and culture—one still living in the deep forest, the other living in the mining and timber town of Malinau. The majority of Punan now live in such urban centres. Of the few thousands who still live in forested landscapes, most are small-scale farmers whose forays into the forest for herbal medicines, vegetables and wild boar and deer are more seasonal than daily.

Combined referentials that I grant for a more dynamic assessment of food systems (from Dounias 1993)

My constant and fundamental analytic framework adopted to undertake the anthropology of food consisted of a blending of three complementary grids of comparison. Their combination enables to differentiate the socio-cultural and biophysical drivers involved.
• Inter-ethnic referential: I synchronically studied distinct ethnic groups sharing the same ecosystem. This ‘synecological’ referential offers the opportunity to analyze the discrete cultural choices elaborated by societies confronted with the same ecological constraints. It prevents from an excessive determinist interpretation of adaptive strategies.
• Ecosystemic referential: I synchronically studied the same ethnic group living in two contrasted forest ecosystems. This ‘auto-ecological’ referential provides a choice field to analyze how ecological constraints affect the strategies of distinct communities with the same origin. This referential provides favorable ground for analyzing how far the ecological constraints influence local responses.
• Diachronic referential: It is practically a truism to say that culture is mutable, and that people change. Nevertheless, studies that have explored the dynamics of traditional societies over a fairly long time are few and far between. I also studied the same population living in the same ecosystem but at two distinct periods of time.

My main conviction forged along the past 30 years is that the fate of the biological diversity of rainforests and that of the human societies depending on forests for their livelihoods are inseparable, and that good research on biodiversity requires to build upon this inextricable link. Since its emergence in the late 1980s, the paradigm of ‘biodiversity’ has significantly evolved up to the point of considering humans — and their extremely diverse cultural features — as consubstantial of biodiversity. Concerns about the preservation of biological diversity can no longer ignore the cultural diversity that goes along with, and sometimes safeguards, this biological diversity. There is urgent need to have indigenous peoples, traditional societies, and local communities tightly involved in all phases of research and related activities, as well as in the sustainable development and preservation of local biodiversity, in ways that acknowledge their empirical expertise. Nevertheless and besides any romantic consideration vis-à-vis local ecological knowledge, elaboration of a realistic and functional guidance on how to implement such partnership remains a real challenge.


Fields of interest

  • Biocultural interactions between forest dwellers and tropical forests in a context of drastic change, with a particular interest in working with formerly nomadic hunter-gatherers in Africa and South-East Asia.
  • Anthropology of food as the basic framework of my activities: Food is a hybrid research topic that fosters the analysis of the tight interconnections between health, nutritional status, biology and ecology of resources, land use system and cultural choices. Diets are optimal revealers of the adaptive strategies elaborated locally as a response to a changing environment.
  • Resilience of micro-level socio-ecological systems to macro-level external drivers of change; social and environmental impacts of shift from nomadic to sedentary lifestyle; environmental vulnerability induced by tropical forest conversion.
  • Traditional use of forest resources as a safety-net in a changing forest environment; analyzing para/proto/pseudo domestication processes of under-utilized food resources, with a particular focus on wild tubers, bushmeat, fresh-water fishes, and edible insects; historical ecology including man-induced forest evolution and natural/human coupled influence on forest dynamics.
  • Local adaptive strategies of forest dwellers to climate variability and change, with a particular emphasis on local perceptions of climate fluctuations, on traditional meteorological knowledge (ethnoclimatology), and on traditional entomological knowledge (ethnoentomology): insects are very fine biotemporal indicators of ongoing climate disturbances.
  • Participatory action research, citizen science and ecosystem based management: eliciting traditional ecological knowledge and social adaptation to climate variability and change; how local perceptions and knowledge can help designing a research port-folio at the global level to achieve food security.

Geographic experience
  • Cameroon, 1984-onward: Continued and regular research activities in the forested part of the country, among various groups of forest dwellers (hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, trappers, fishermen).
  • Central African Republic, 1985: Ethnoecology of fishing among the Issongo freshwater fishermen.
  • Democratic Republic of Congo, 2014-onward: teaching anthropology of food at the University of Kisangani, surveys on Oto and Twa dietary regimes in Lac Tumba region.
  • Togo, 1983: Student study trip. Assessment of the ‘food selfsufficiency’ National Plan (1980-85) through the analysis of target development projects.
South-east Asia
  • Sumatra (Indonesia), 1988: Subsistence economy of the Kubu hunter-gatherers.
  • Kalimantan (Indonesia), 2001-2010: Nutritional ecology of the Tubu Punan hunter-gatherers in Eastern Kalimantan. Position at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, among the ‘Forest and Livelihoods’ program; successively staff (2001-2006) and senior research associate (2006-onward).

Current research networks

Organizing and scientific committees of academic events

Contributions to films

Contributions to online reports

Contributions to exhibitions and artistic events related to food systems and diets
  • November 2007-April 2008. Co-commissioner with Hélène Pagezy of the exhibition and conference cycle ‘Living nature through children’s eyes’ (in French). This project was devoted to the collection of drawings portraying the way children see their societies and the relationship with the environment.
  • June 2009-June 2010. Co-commissioner of the exhibition, conference cycle, and educational workshops ‘Diets and flavors of the world: the nourishing forest’ (Agropolis-Museum, Montpellier, France) (in French).
  • June 2011-October 2012. Participant to ‘Binome #2: When art meets science’ (Les sens des mots, Universciences). An atypical two-person team composed of a scientist and a playwright. This initiative combines art and science through a tryptic ‘theatre play — audiovisual creation — interactive societal debate with the audience’. My experience of hunter-gatherer dietary regimes inspired the playwright Gérard Watkins. The piece ‘A condition d’avoir une table dans un jardin’ was played during several theatre festivals (in French). The text of the theatre play was published in 2011 by Voix Navigables.
  • June 2011-September 2011. Contributor to the exhibition ‘Tropical rainforests, future of our planet’, Palais de la découverte, Paris, France (in French).

Teaching, Mentoring, Reviewing
  • Mentoring of more than 70 master students.
  • Supervisor for 9 doctoral theses (France, Cameroon, Indonesia, China).
  • 30 hours of teaching annually; regular lectures at University of Montpellier 2, National Institute of Horticulture and Landscape in Angers, Faculty of Agronomy in Montpellier, Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences, National Museum of Natural History, Center for African Area Studies in Kyoto University, University of Kisangani.
  • Member of the editorial board of Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedecine (2015-onward).
  • Reviewer for international journals: Advances in Economic Botany, Before Farming, Biodiversity and Conservation, Biological Conservation, Biodiversity and Conservation, Bois et Forêts des Tropiques, Borneo Bulletin, Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, Cahiers d’Agricultures, Conservation Biology, Conservation & Society, Earthscan books, Ecology & Society, Forests Trees and Livelihoods, Human Biology, Human Ecology, International Forestry Review, IRD éditions, Journal d’Agriculture Traditionnelle et de Botanique Appliquée, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, Natures-Sciences-Sociétés, Unasylva, VertigO.