What is Anthropology


So, What is anthropology? The term anthropology comes from the Greek
words “Anthropos” meaning man (human) and “Logos” meaning study of. At the most
basic, anthropology is the study of humans, cross-culturally and through time. Anthropology
studies the behaviors, physiology, and material culture of living and ancient societies, as
well as the past and present of our nearest biological relatives, the primates. While
many other disciplines study humans and human behavior, anthropology uses a holistic, comparative
approach to the study of living and past populations. By holistic, I mean that anthropology is a
multifaceted way of looking at societies that requires knowledge of all aspects of a society,
their beliefs, practices, environment, and biology, in order to understand any part of
it. For example, if an anthropologist is interested in the religion of a particular group of people,
he or she must look at the physical environment the group lives in, how they obtain food,
gender roles, social hierarchy, education, etc, in order to understand why the group
has the religious beliefs they do. Also, anthropology realizes that human biology, behavior, and
material culture are linked. This means that anthropology looks for cultural explanations
for biological phenomena, like how the western diet affects age at menarche and heart disease,
and diabetes, and biological reasons behind cultural practices, such as genetic links
for behaviors like alcoholism or schizophrenia. On the whole, anthropology is a cross disciplinary
subject. We study art, music, politics, agriculture, technology, economy, identity, botany, hunting,
and more. It is because anthropology is holistic that we can get a much more accurate view
of why a society acts in a certain way. The comparative facet of anthropology means
that we compare behaviors and practices between societies. Doing so helps establish connections
between groups that may have been a single group in the past, may have had contact with
each other (through mediums such as trade), or simply have responded to similar stimuli
in the same way. For example, there are many groups of people who live near the oceans
and collect shellfish as their main food source, this is simply a response to the fact that
shell fish are plentiful and easy to obtain in that environment. On the other hand, when
we find identical stone tools 16-19,000 years ago, in Europe (called Solutrean) and the
Americas (called Clovis), it is likely that there is some connection between the populations.
This has suggested that some groups of humans migrated directly from Europe across the Atlantic,
probably following the edge of the northern glacier ice sheets sometime between 16,000
and 19,000 years ago. In addition to being holistic and comparative, anthropology is
also evolutionary. Evolution simply means change over time. It does NOT mean an increase
in complexity or progression toward a specific form or goal. What this means is that anthropologists
look at how humans change! This can be physically – for example most of us are taller than
our grandparents and many modern humans are born without one or more wisdom teeth, or
it can be culturally – where things like technology improvements have drastically changed
our behaviors and beliefs over the years. There are four fields within anthropology
that focus on particular aspects of humans, though all are holistic, and information is
borrowed back and forth between subfields. The four fields are: Social/Cultural Anthropology,
Archaeology, Anthropological Linguistics, and Physical/Biological Anthropology.
Archaeology attempt to reconstruct the behaviors, beliefs, and practices of past populations
by looking at the material attributes (artifacts) that remain after a culture dies or moves
elsewhere. Archaeologists excavate the remains of groups of people who are no longer living
in the area and use these remains to answer questions about subsistence (how they got
their food), economy, trade, and possibly link these past populations with living cultures
nearby or around the world. Archaeology is also conducted on historical sites that have
been abandoned or destroyed, and can be used to verify historical documentation on events Socio-Cultural anthropology is very similar
to archaeology in focus, with the main difference being that instead of reconstructing past
populations, cultural anthropology observes and analyzes the beliefs and practices of
living populations. Cultural anthropology seeks to understand the reasons for the different
beliefs and practices of societies around the world. As well as how and why different
patterns of behavior have evolved and how a society develops and changes over time,
especially currently with the globalization of the modern world. So, in cultural research,
the goals are more focused on “why” where as in archaeology its more on what. Linguistic anthropology studies human languages, their similarities and differences, how they
change, and how language and culture interact. Linguistic anthropologists address diverse
questions such as how language variations (such as accents or dialects) influence individual’s
cultural perspectives, how males and females communicate differently, and reconstructing
ancient languages. Physical anthropology addresses the biological
basis of humans, specifically focusing on evolution of the physical body and human ancestors,
anatomy and physiology, and our primate relatives. There are three main subfields within physical
anthropology: Genetics and Human Variation, Primatology, and Paleoanthropology.
Genetics focuses on the similarities and differences between individuals at the cellular level
– looking at the actual genes, how they came to be, why some individuals have certain
genes while others do not, and how genes work to make everyone different. Human variation
takes the genetics and looks at how individuals as a whole are both similar and different.
Researchers studying human variation look at human growth and development, how humans
deal with environmental stressors like heat, cold, solar radiation, diet, etc., and why
different populations of people have different genes, both in living and extinct populations. Human variation also addresses how humans have changed over time Included in the field of human variation is also forensics forensic anthropology. Because anthropology studies
past populations as well as present ones, physical anthropologists are experts on human
bones, which can also be applied to criminal cases in which the remains of a victim have
become skeletonized. In these situations, forensic anthropologists are asked to determine
who the individuals was by looking at their sex, age at death, and interpreting any trauma or disease present in the skeleton, just as they would in an ancient skeleton Primatologists study the evolution and behavior of our nearest living and extinct biological
relatives, the primates. Primates are the order of mammals that includes humans, apes,
monkeys, and prosimians. Primatology focuses on the genetics, anatomy, and behavior of
the various primate species, similar to the way human variation looks at humans, and for
many of the same reasons, specifically identifying why the different species have different traits
and behaviors. They also look at why certain species survived while others became extinct.
Looking at our closest relatives, it can help us to understand where our ancestors came
from, and why we have some of the traits we do. Most primatologist, in addition to studying
the living primates, work on the conservation of living primates around the world, especially
in terms of the great apes who are highly threatened due to the bush-meat trade in Africa
and the Palm Oil trade in Indonesia. Paleoanthropology is the study of the evolution
and behavior of humans and our extinct biological relatives. In many ways, Paleoanthropologists
are the human variationists of the past. They use the fossilized bones of bipedal apes and
more to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the human species, locating and identifying
new species, and fitting them into the human family tree. They are interested both in species
that are on the direct ancestral line with modern humans, as well as those on side branches
that have gone extinct. They also look at more recent species on the family tree, such
as Homo erectus and Neandertals, attempting to understand how and why they changed in
morphology over time, and what behaviors they likely exhibited – for example when did
human ancestors start hunting or building fires?
So, now that we know what anthropology is and more specifically what biological anthropology
studies, why is this important to understand, Why do we study it? Biological anthropology
can help to us understand the differences between individuals, why some individuals
look one way while others look another. For example, why do some people have straight
hair and others coarse, curly hair? That has to do with heat and ancestry – individuals
who have ancestors who lived in hot climates without many trees needed coarse curly hair
to insulate their heads (and brains) from overheating in the heat of the day while the
sun in beating down on their heads, while individuals whose ancestors lived in a cold
climate need the straighter hair to cover the back of their neck and their ears to prevent
heat loss. This understanding of why traits are different in different populations can
then help us combat biologically based racism, if we know why individuals have the traits
that they do, those traits can no longer be used as an excuse to discriminate against
individuals with them. Lastly, an understanding of biological anthropology helps us to understand
that we, as humans, are part of a long continuum of evolutionary change, and that as a species,
we continue to change as our environment changes around us, the same way all living things
do.