i-mat* Project
(CNRS MITI 2021-2023)

* This project has received financial support from the CNRS through the MITI interdisciplinary programs.



1 - Abstract:


Biomimetics is inspired by forms, materials, properties, processes and functions of living beings and things found in nature: it thus seeks sustainable solutions produced directly by Nature. The aim of the I-MAT research project is to extend this concept to "Ethnomimetics", research dedicated to materials and techniques developed over the centuries by various ethnic groups around the world, with the vision of current state of the art scientific knowledge, within the frame of sustainable development.


This project will focus on certain materials and techniques used by Native American groups, since at least the 19th century, with a major interest in both Humanities, particularly Anthropology, Ethnology, Archeology, History, Social Science, Art and Museum Studies, and "Hard" Sciences to study the physicochemical properties of these materials and techniques, more respectful with the environment.




Photography SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) of a Golden Eagle feather (Aquila Chysaetos):

detail of the velcro-type microstructures, allowing the structural cohesion of the feather. (T. SARNET)



3 - Presentation of the project:


3.1. State of the Art:


Following the classic line of anthropology of techniques, from André Leroi-Gourhan1 to Tim Ingold2, and articulating this field of humanities with physics and bio-inspired materials sciences, the objective of the project I-Mat is to study the "Arts of Making" of Native American societies in order to show that natural materials and techniques can produce meaning2 and offer new perspectives for eco-friendly production and ethical museography.

In this regard, the "ethnomimetics" process that we hypothesize must be considered both as a process of a physico-chemical order and of a cognitive and creative order, a formula of abstraction from the models offered by nature, and not his uninspiring imitation3. In addition, historically, the case study offers an exemplary and original point of view on the exchange of materials from living things and forms of know-how between Native societies and the Old Continent. For example, the glass beads introduced by European settlers from the 16th century onwards may have become fundamental components of the craftsmanship of the tribes of the Great Plains, or, further south, the Huichol of Mexico4,5. Considering the history of intertribal contacts and between Native groups and colonial and Euro-American populations from the 16th century to the present day, the concept of ethnomimetics can reveal the different processes of diffusion, adaptation and adoption of ritual modalities, techniques and materials,  which intensified in post-Colombian America, notably through wars, diplomacy and commercial relations6-12 and, later, through museography and tourism13. Just as biomimetics is inspired by structures existing in the natural state, ethnomimetics aims to be inspired by natural materials and techniques used by ethnic groups over the centuries, with the current knowledge of materials science and anthropology.


Leroi-Gourhan, A., L’Homme et la matière, Paris, Albin Michel, 1943.

Ingold, T., « Materials against materiality », Archaeological Dialogues 14 (1) 1–16 C 2007 Cambridge University Press (en ligne), 2007

3 Hildebrandt T. 2019, « Pré-mimésis et cosmotechnique », Regards croisés, n°9, pp. 114-124.

Turgeon, L., « Les ceintures wampum en Amérique », Communications, 77. pp. 17-37, 2005,

Une histoire de la Nouvelle-France. Français et Amérindiens au XVIe siècle, Paris, Belin, 2019.

5 García de Weigand, A. Chaquira de los indígenas huicholes, Guadalajara, Gobierno de Jalisco, 2006.

6 Wissler C. , “The influence of the horse in the development of Plains culture”, American Anthropologist, 16, (The Bobbs-Merrill reprint series in the social sciences), 1914.

7 Spier L., The Sun Dance of the Plain Indians, its Development and Diffusion, New York, Library of Congress, 1921.

8 Vennum T. The Ojibwa Dance Drum. Its History and Construction, Washington D.C., Sithsonian Folklife Studies N° 2, 1982.

9 Goddard I. & Kathleen J. Bragdon, NativeWritings in Massachusett, Philadelphia, American

Philosophical Society, 2 vol., 1988.

10 Carpenter E., « European Motives in Protohistorican Iroquois Art », in Merril W., I. Goddard (eds.), Anthropology, History and American Indians. Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, Washington D. C., Smithsonian contributions to anthropology n° 44, p. 255-262, 2002.

11 Havard G., « Le rire des jésuites. Une archéologie du mimétisme dans la rencontre franco-amérindienne (XVIIe -XVIIIe

siècle) », Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 2007/3 62e année | pages 539 à 573, 2007.

12 Désveaux E.,« Une autobiographie meskwaki anonyme, ou La captation de l’écriture », L’Homme 190 / 2009, pp. 181 à 190, 2009.

13 Archambault J, « Indian Imagery and the Development of Tourism in the Southwest », in Merril W., I. Goddard (eds.), Anthropology, History and American Indians. Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, Washington D. C., Smithsonian contributions to anthropology n° 44, p. 139-146, 2002.




Making of a Plain Indian Warbonnet ethnological replica at the Peabody Museum of Harvard, for the Education Department of the Museum.



Presentation of an ethnological eagle-feather Warbonnet replica by T. SARNET, (MUCEM museum, CNRS 80th birthday, 2020). 




3.2. . Interdisciplinary, structuring and exploratory nature of the I-MAT project:


The concept of ethnomimetics is a whole new interdisciplinary approach, born at Aix-Marseille University in 2019, resulting from the synergy between a CNRS physicist researcher, Thierry SARNET, specialized in modification of materials by lasers (LP3 laboratory), and a anthropologist from IDEMEC, Prof. Frédéric SAUMADE (professor of anthropology at AMU), both enthusiastic experts of Native American Indians. This transdisciplinary merging has been the start of an unprecedented collaboration between a laboratory of "engineering sciences" (LP3, AMU-CNRS UMR 7341) and a laboratory of social and humanity sciences (IDEMEC, AMU-CNRS UMR 7307).


From the point of view of anthropology / ethnology, this project concerns the relations between American Indians / materials, tangible and intangible cultural heritage and Europe-America (s) trade and commerce. From the point of view of physics / chemistry / material science, the aim is to study particular properties of materials and techniques developed by these ethnic groups, for an "intelligent" and eco-responsible use of natural resources. In reality, the ethnomimetics approach in this project has a highly transdisciplinary character, given the ambitious objective of bringing together knowledge beyond the involved disciplines. In terms of the physics of materials, we plan to replicate various objects from the collections of the Peabody Museum at Harvard and other objects from field work in order to be able to study in the laboratory their physicochemical characteristics (resistance of materials and their assemblies, thermal properties, hydrophobic properties , micro and nanostructures ...) in order to compare them with current materials and techniques.


In this context, the collaboration with Harvard is particularly relevant: objects from the collection storage of the Peabody Museum will be available to the project for 3D scan campaigns. This technique (used for example for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame de Paris * cathedral) consists of reconstructing in 3D an object from a laser mesh (case of Notre-Dame de Paris, before the fire), or of high resolution shots (4K and above), to obtain a digital double. These digital replicas will be used to feed the various cultural heritage databases and will be made available for virtual museum visits, but also will serve as a tool for making exact material replicas for physical studies. chemical.


From an anthropological point of view, it offers solutions to be considered for the exhibition of objects specific to native cultures, while respecting their heritage integrity. The study concerns in particular animal by-products (skins, bones, horns, feathers, quills ..), plants (wood, fibers, pigments, ..) and minerals (stone, clay, copper), and the techniques associated with the elaboration or assembly of these materials (hunting, picking, tanning, modeling, basketry, cutting and sculpture, waterproofing, shaping, drying, gluing, plasters, dyes, etc.), the ways in which Native American artisans produce them and transform them, and the scientific reproduction for museographic purposes, with the approval and the collaboration of the different tribes.


This interdisciplinary dimension, associating the physics of materials and cultural anthropology, aims in particular to highlight, through joint analyzes of the relationships between types of natural materials (wood, fiber, stone, clay, ore, skin, feather, pigment), properties visual and sound, and meanings which emerge from them in the discourse of craftsmen and indigenous exegetes. In the particular case of the ritual drum, an eminently sacred object among Native Americans, we propose to experimentally compare the technical criteria mobilized by the drummakers, drummers and dancers (in order to justify the relationship between the choice of wood species and animal skins, manufacturing processes, maintenance methods and musical playing styles, together with a physical-acoustic analysis of the instruments.


* https://lejournal.cnrs.fr/photogrammetrie

Photogrammetry (or 3D scan) of a wolf jawbone.




Fabrication of a primitive knife replica, using 3D printing and obsidian blade (T. Sarnet et  Nicolas Eyrieux, 2021).



3.3. Methods:



The anthropological methodology is based on the participant observation of the work of Native American craftworkers, with participation in the collection of materials in nature, observation of the operating chains: manufacture of headdresses and other objects incorporating feathers and / or glass beads, leather, stones; making ritual drums, carvings of wood, stone, pottery, and basketry.


Particular interests for this project are the Sioux Lakota Reservation of Pine Ridge (South Dakota), the Pueblo villages of Cochiti and Zuni (New-Mexico), and the Hopi reserve (Arizona). The project will be presented beforehand to the authorities (tribal councils) of these different communities, before which will be explained the interest for these latter to benefit from a scientific instrument of valuation of their heritage. craftsmanship and their conceptions of the relationship between human activity and materials derived from living organisms. 


Participant observation is therefore designed in feedback with the populations considered here. It is conventionally completed by interviews on these various ways of doing things, their integration into a symbolic ecology whose variables are made up of the materials themselves - feathers, skins, wood species, plant fibers, bones, horns, stones, etc. - to which the Native People lend an agency, even a sacred personality; the relationship between indigenous value systems and those of the market economy and tourism, in which artisans find their main economic outlet today; finally, their own conception of museography and of the correct ways of exhibiting and showing their heritage (a particularly successful case of a museographic initiative given to Amerindian groups is that of the exhibition of the arts of British Columbia at Canadian Museum of the History of Ottawa, presented in traditional houses built by Native American artisans with redwood beams and cedar planks brought from their territory). It will be a question not only of respecting the ethics of the Amerindians in their relation to their sacras, but also to solicit their knowledge within the framework of a heritage enhancement over which they have control. In this regard, they will be invited to make the distinctions between objects for which they authorize public exhibition and those, inalienable and non-reproducible, reserved for the framework of secret ceremonies. At the same time, the work of facsimile reproduction of particularly fragile objects composed of rare materials and strictly protected by law nowadays, such as eagle feathers, of which Thierry Sarnet masters the technique of replication - he has already worked in this meaning for the Peabody Museum in Harvard and for the Sioux Lakota tribe of Pine Ridge–, will be dedicated to meeting the demand of Native American groups. This new demand is due to the growing pressure from the ecological regulations of the Federal State in natural areas (in addition to eagle feathers, the sanctuary of cottonwood poplar from the Rio Grande valley, sacred tree of the Pueblo, used as well for drums than for making katsina dolls), which always makes the traditional manufacture of certain ritual objects more difficult. In this sense, the proposed project, beyond “research-action”, is akin to “research-service” based on a relationship of exchange of know-how oriented by indigenous conceptions of heritage development, and putting innovative scientific processes at the service of traditional cultures.


The component concerning physico-chemical characterizations will establish bases for comparative analyzes (benchmarking), concerning in particular the manufacture of dyes, pigments, skin chemistry (tanning), thermal and hydrophobic properties (habitat and clothing), associated to their mechanical properties (resistance of materials and their assemblies), and will address macroscopic aspects but also micro and nanoscopic scales, mainly on replicas of traditional objects. An example of an interesting manufacturing process can be illustrated by the making of Tipis (habitat): the Plains Indians used techniques of tanning natural skins (without chromium salts) using preparation made from boiled animal brains: the resulting substance contains natural tanning agents. These skins were assembled using animal sinew (material resistance) or glue obtained from residues of hooves or horns, containing a high proportion of collagen. The skins could then be waterproofed thanks to the "smoking" technique: the diffusion of carbon particles (in the form of soot and / or micro and nanoparticles, etc.), thus conferring hydrophobic properties on tipi fabrics. The main principles of these techniques are relatively well known to ethnologists and historians, but materials sciences have not sufficiently addressed these "ethnomimetic" aspects, with our current knowledge and techniques of characterization.



Préservation and replicas: "Protecting a War Bonnet", source: Peabody Museum de Harvard




3.4. Expected results:


This fruitful exchange between Native American know-how and Western science will contribute to the establishment of protocols for the exploitation of natural materials and the manufacture of objects, for museographic and / or commercial purposes, specific to an ecological economy. Various examples of the materials and techniques used have been presented recently, taking as examples emblematic objects typical of the North American Indians such as a war headdress (warbonnet) and a ritual drum *. The manufacture of these objects uses original techniques that can serve as a model for the reproduction and / or restoration of museum collections, but also, more generally, for sustainable artisanal and industrial productions, for the benefit of Native tribes, who find in this type of production one of the rare outlets allowing to combine economic development and maintenance of traditional know-how. Better still, the collaboration between Native artists and members of the team will allow us to disseminate to the scientific and industrial world methods of manufacture of Amerindian origin suitable to improving certain productions of the market economy (particularly in the sectors of museography, furniture, art and leisure) in the quest for better compatibility with the preservation of environmental balances.


* Presentation at the MUCEM (Marseille Museum) for the CNRS 80th anniversary: https://mucem.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/programme-80ans-cnrs.pdf


This innovative project will address the following themes in particular:


  • The manufacture of natural, herbal or mineral dyes.
  • The manufacture of various glues, without solvents, extracted from buffalo hoofs (waste recovery aspect).
  • The tanning of the skins (based on brain extract: "upgrading" sector), without chromium-based tannins and detergents.
  • Assembly and sewing based on natural tendons and sinews, without synthetic threads (Nylon: hydrocarbons).
  • Decorations, dyes and natural materials, without the use of plastics.
  • Collecting the roots and trunks of dead trees (poplar, pine, cedar) hollowed out, to make sculptures (such as Katsina dolls), or drums, taking advantage of the natural decay of the heart and the simultaneous resilience of external rings (sapwood, bark).
  • The collection of fibers and the braiding and dyeing processes in traditional basketwork.


For the characterizations of the objects studied, ethnological replicas will be produced using traditional materials and techniques, in collaboration with the concerned ethnic groups (Sioux Lakota and Pueblo) and museum collections (Harvard Peabody). For original materials that are not readily available (golden eagle feathers, protected wood species, etc.) alternative avenues should be considered.


This new "Material and Culture" approach, focused on Native American materials and techniques, aims on the one hand to complete an important link between Anthropology and Materials Science, and on the other hand to offer perspectives. and useful knowledge for the sectors of the future such as energy, the environment and environmental technologies.


In addition to the production of copies, for tribal ritual uses, and for the museographic enhancement of Amerindian cultures, interdisciplinary articles will be produced for North American and French peer-reviewed journals. On the anthropological level, they should lead to reconsider the question of the copying of original ethnic objects, usually considered as a theft, even a sacrilege, when this copy is made for the benefit of the societies concerned and in collaboration with them, and when it contributes to the development of sustainable production techniques.


The transdisciplinary approach of ethnomimetics (derived from biomimetics) of the materials and techniques discussed in this project are of great interest to modern science and society, especially in a context of social transition towards materials, techniques and eco-responsible practices. The results will be presented on sites under construction: www.ethnomimetisme.com (french) and / or www.ethnomimetics.org (english)


Commercial exchanges between European trappers and Native Americans of the plains (Shoshone), 19th century. "Old Country Buffet - The Feast", Oil Painting by Howard Terpning.



3.5. Complementarity of teams and contribution of participants:


The concept of ethnomimetics is a whole new interdisciplinary, even transdisciplinary approach, born at Aix-Marseille University in 2019. From the point of view of anthropology / ethnology, this project concerns the relations between American Indians / materials, heritage tangible and intangible cultural and trade and commerce Europe-America (s). From the point of view of physics / chemistry / materials science, it is a question of studying physicochemical properties for an "intelligent" and eco-responsible use of natural resources.


This complementarity, resulting from a strong synergy between Frédéric SAUMADE1, professor of anthropology at IDEMEC (INSHS, section 38 CNRS) and Thierry SARNET, CNRS researcher in physicsin laser-matter interaction at LP3 (INSIS, sections 08 and 10) , both specialists in American Indians. Frédéric SAUMADE will be the i-Mat project leader and Thierry SARNET will co-supervise with him the PhD student who will work on this project.


This strong collaboration is supported by the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, where Thierry SARNET worked as a visiting professor in the department of Physics2-3 and as a volunteer at the Peabody Museum4.



  • 1  To be published in 2021 : Tenatsali, ou l’ethnologue qui fut transformé en Indien. Ecrits de Frank Hamilton Cushing sélectionnés, présentés et commentés par Patrick Pérez et Frédéric Saumade, Paris, CNRS Editions 2021.
  • 2 "A Laser-Processed Silicon Solar Cell With Photovoltaic Efficiency in the Infrared", I. Sánchez, P. Delaporte, Y. Spiegel, B. Franta, E. Mazur and T. Sarnet, Physica Status Solidi A: Applications and Materials Science, 218(7), 2021.
  • 3 "From Black Silicon to Photovoltaic Cells, Using Short Pulse Lasers" (invited paper) Thierry Sarnet, James Carey and Eric Mazur, HPLA2012, American Institute of Physics (AIP) Conference Proceedings, Vol. 1464 Issue 1, p219, 2012
  • 4 "Protecting a War Bonnet" voir vidéo sur la page d'accueil du Peabody Museum: https://www.peabody.dev.fas.harvard.edu/ (permanent link: Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/peabodyharvard/search?query=war%20bonnet)



3.6. About the PhD position:


The PhD candidate will work within the framework of the I-MAT project. The candidate must have a Master degree in the following fields: anthropology, ethnology, archeology, history, or related interdisciplinary field with a good knowledge of cultural technology of Native American civilizations.

The PhD subject will be focused on traditional materials, techniques, artefacts and rituals of the Indians of North America (including art, clothing, pottery, basketry, sculpture, traditional musical instrument making…), and also on the relationship between Native People and their environment, plants, animal species, mineral resources… Social use of objects will also be considered, especially when focusing on rituals, dance or music. The PhD candidate will also be working in the field in Southwest Communities (Cochiti, Zuni, Hopi, NM, and in South Dakota (Lakota Oglala Pine Ridge Reservation), under the supervision of Pr. Frédéric Saumade (Professor of anthropology at Aix-Marseille University) and Dr. Thierry Sarnet (CNRS Researcher in Physics and Material Science). Part of this research work includes the collection of knowledge for the manufacture of replicas, the use of Photogrammetry technique and/or 3D Scanner within the Peabody Museum of Harvard.  The characterization of physical and chemical properties of the materials and artefacts and the fabrication of ethnological replicas will be actively supported by T. Sarnet. In addition to the PhD dissertation and the articles that will result from this research program, the doctoral student will be asked to actively contribute to the resulting material production, with the aim of constituting a sample of a museum collection.


The dissertation will be presented to the Department of Anthropology for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the subject of Anthropology at the Aix-Marseille University, France.


Salary: approx. 2100€ (2500 USD)/month gross salary, 1700€ (2040 USD) net salary which includes health insurance (3-year CDD contract with CNRS)


Starting: Fall 2021


Language: French and/or English is mandatory


PhD applicants should send a cover letter and CV to:

F. Saumade (frederic.saumade@univ-amu.fr) and T. Sarnet (thierry.sarnet@univ-amu.fr)