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What is Anthropology and Subfields

. Cultural Anthropology: What many people think of as a
primary field of anthropological study. Culture is what makes
humans unique compared to all other species.
– Culture, at its core, consists of everything that humans think
and do that is both learned and shared among other
humans: essentially, it’s everything not biological!
– Learning about other cultures and more about our own
culture(s) help us understand the world in a broader sense
and recognize that there are many ways of being human.
– In today's anthropology, we recognize that there are many
facets of culture to explore. In addition to the traditional
ones, there are many other subfields of cultural
anthropology such as: the anthropology of
business, cyber anthropology, medical anthropology,
forensic anthropology, etc.
Cultural anthropologists have traditionally studied many basic and
fundamental aspects of human societies such as:
Module 1:
Anthropology: The study of people; derives from the
terms anthropos (people) and logos (study)
– Consists of many subfields that focus on different aspects
of humans, how we came to be, and how we live in the
– Is typically divided into four main subfields:
. Cultural Anthropology
. Archaeology
. Linguistics
. Physical Anthropology
Subsistence: refers to how people make a living; what
people do to get their food.
◆ While you and I purchase most of our food from the
store, in other cultures, people are more directly involved
in producing their food, whether it be through collecting
food in the wild, caring for domesticated animals, or
growing domesticated plant foods.
Many people in Western societies like our own are now
returning to more locally produced foods, buying from
farmer's markets or growing some of their own.
Economics: refers to how people exchange goods.
◆ There are many different forms of exchange, often with
underlying principles that differ greatly from the
standard Western economic model.
◆ It is important to recognize that market-based exchange,
the basis for all global economics today, is not the only
form of exchange!
Kinship and marriage patterns: Are varied across the
world and are what illustrate how we perceive "family" is a
cultural institution, not pure biology. There are many
different ways of being related.
◆ While your mother's sister is known in America as your
“aunt,” in other cultures, she may have the same kinship
term as your mother.
◆ All cultures have traditions, HOWEVER it is important to
recognize that new traditions are invented frequently.
We often take for granted that marriage partners are a
matter of our own personal choice, but in many other
societies, arranged marriages and practicing polygamist
marriages are their traditional pattern.
Social and political systems: illustrate how a culture is
organized regarding status (e.g. are people equal? is there
social inequality?) and control (e.g. do all people contribute
to decision-making? do a few people have the power to
make decisions?).
◆ All modern state-level societies have a high degree of
what we call social stratification (i.e. different social
levels or classes) and concentrated power marked by
highly specialized political roles (although democracy
hands that power back to the people to some degree!)
*** This has not always been the case and different
types of social and political systems continue to
operate within the greater context of state-level
Religious beliefs: also vary quite widely across the world,
and create very different world views and templates for
social behavior.
◆ Belief in the supernatural is found cross-culturally--that
is, all cultures have it.
◆ Often, religion backs up social and political systems,
reinforcing people's status and who is in control
Relation to Physical Anthropology: We are a biocultural
species. We depend on culture to adapt and survive in the
◆ We would not have become the species we are today
were it not for culture, however, not all cultural behavior
is good for our species… in other words: not all cultural
behavior is adaptive.
◆ With the above being said, we are the only species that
is capable of thinking about the future and making
choices about our behaviors with long-term adaptation in
. Archaeology: The digging up of remains from the past,
specifically the remains of past cultures.
– Archaeology is a way of understanding how human people
and cultures have existed over time, filling in the huge gaps
in our knowledge about ourselves.
– Overall, it is important to recognize that archaeology is the
only method we have to research the daily lives of people
and cultures or aspects of cultures for which no written
record exists.
While there are many archaeologists who work on major
civilizations and sites (the Egyptian pyramids, Roman temples,
Inka fortresses, etc)…
○ Since historical records do not typically contain detailed
information about the every-day experience of people, much
archaeological work is done at small-scale sites, excavating
people's houses from the ancient and the more recent past.
◆ One of the most important sources of information about
daily lives comes from people's trash:
– One example is the historic American privy (basically
toilets) due to their additional use as trash cans —
there is a lot that can be discovered about what
people bought, consumed, and threw away during
that period by digging up their remains.
Relation to Physical Anthropology: Many of the techniques of
archaeology are used by paleoanthropologists, those who study
ancient humans.
◆ Archaeological specialists include people who also study
human remains.
◆ Understanding human adaptations in the past is also
only accessible through the archaeological record.
*** If you are interested in studying past life forms such as
dinosaurs, you need to study paleontology, not archaeology!
(Paleo=old, ontology=being; the study of ancient life!) These are
often confused due to their use of many of the same
. Linguistic Anthropology: is the smallest of the four fields, but
extremely important because we wouldn't be who we are
without this unique capacity.
– While other species have complex forms of communication,
none are nearly as complex as humans.
– Communication is both completely universal (all humans do
it) and completely variable (thousands of different
languages spoken).
– Communication consists of both spoken language and other
forms of communication, too, such as writing, sign language
and body language.
Linguistic Anthropologists have discovered a lot about humans
through studying many aspects of language such as:
Structural linguistics: the study of the components and
forms of languages and the most formal aspect of linguistic
Historical linguistics: the study of language origins and
language families.
◆ Similar to the study of a family tree, we can discover
which languages are more closely or distantly related,
and understand how languages were carried by groups
of people as they migrated over the landscape through
Sociolinguistics: looks at how language is used differently
by different groups of people that otherwise share the same
◆ It is instinctual that how someone else speaks will tell us
something about them:
– A dialect (or accent) tells us what part of the country
someone comes from.
– The use of particular slang can identify members of a
specific sub-culture.
– Commonly described as code-switching, we’ll often
speak differently in different contexts, whether or not
we are hanging out with friends, addressing our
professors, or texting someone.
Relation to Physical Anthropology: Without language, we
humans would not have the ability to share detailed information
and learn from one another.
◆ Our ability far exceeds that of any other species.
◆ Understanding the evolution of language capabilities in
our species is a key component to understanding what it
means to be human.
Above: The hyoid bone shown above in the modern human, a
Neanderthal (early, archaic human), and a modern chimpanzee.
The shape and position of the hyoid at the lower front of the throat
makes it possible for humans (and in the past, Neanderthals) to
produce complex speech.
Physical Anthropology: Also called biological anthropology, this
field deals with many different aspects of the human species from
the perspective of our biological nature and the natural,
evolutionary forces that brought us to this point.
Much like the field of anthropology itself, physical anthropology is
also divided into several sub-fields that we will study. These include
three major sections:
Evolutionary Theory
◆ Evolutionary Theory is what holds Physical Anthropology
together. We will explore the theory of Evolution by
Natural Selection as first espoused by Charles Darwin.
We will explore the historical background that made it
possible for him to develop his theories.
◆ Understanding Principles of Inheritance is also key to
understanding Physical Anthropology. The work of
Gregor Mendel, often called the father of modern
genetics, will help us understand this. His exploration of
how traits are passed on from one generation to the next
opened the doors to a greater understanding of
◆ Our knowledge of biology today far exceeds that of
either Darwin or Mendel. We will study the basics of
cells and DNA to understand the arena in which the
transmission of traits occurs. Understanding how traits
are passed from parents to offspring will help us
understand how Darwin’s theories work!
Modern Humans and Primates
– Modern humans can be viewed through the lens of physical
anthropology as well. Our life-cycle is unique in some ways, but
similar to other species. Importantly, physical anthropology can
tell us something that is NOT biologically significant—the
concept of race. Among our species, our DNA only varies by
around 0.1%. That’s very little!
– Humans do vary as a species, but in complex ways. We will look
at how certain variations can be seen as adaptations to different
parts of the world. Physical Anthropology gives us a unique
viewpoint to understand what it means to be human, and how
we got that way!
– Primatology is the study of primates, our closest living relatives!
Studying primates helps us understand our own species, since
we share much of our genes and evolutionary history with them.
– Primates are a very diverse group, and we will learn about a
wide variety of different kinds of primates. Some are quite
familiar to us, such as the great apes (chimpanzees or gorillas,
for example). We will learn about how to construct taxonomies
of primate relationships— family trees.
– Primate behavior is also important. Much primate behavior is not
that different than ours! Finding a mate, raising children, finding
food, using tools are all parts of the daily lives of many primates.
– Mating patterns are a very important aspect of the lives of
primates (as well as many other animals). We will study how
evolution often leads to differences in the behavior and/or
appearance of females versus males to help explain why males
and females of many species are different.
Homo erectus skull from Eastern Europe
– Paleoanthropology is the study of human origins. This includes
fossil evidence of human ancestral species and related species.
We will learn about how to study the past and the history of the
earth before looking more closely at our own evolutionary
– Evidence will be presented from the geological, genetic, and
fossil record that illustrates how our species evolved from a
common ancestor with chimpanzees (and bonobos!). We will
learn about the many species identified through the fossil
record and the physical traits that change through time.
– Ancient behavior changes through time as well. We will look at
evidence for the first tools constructed by our ancestors. Tool
use is associated with other behavioral changes as well, we’ll
see. Eventually, we begin to engage in even more “human”
behavior, like the expressive arts.
– Some of our ancestors were more successful than others,
eventually spreading across the globe. We have thrived as a
species based on both physical and cultural adaptations. In this
sense, humans can be seen as uniquely biocultural organisms.
***These traits may seem unusually, but these are the traits are
what make us human. And that is the key goal to understand--from
a physical/biological perspective--what exactly makes us human