ANTHROPOLOGY (Part 1 of 2).   Leave a comment

The science that studies human cultures is called anthropology. It is a discipline that deals with the origins and development of human societies and the differences between them. The word anthropology is derived from two Greek words: anthropos meaning “man” or “human”; and logos, meaning “thought” or “reason.” Anthropologists attempt, by investigating the whole range of human development and behaviour, to achieve a total description of cultural and social phenomena.

The Spheres of Anthropology

The science of anthropology is divided into two major disciplines, physical anthropology and cultural anthropology. Each of these is basically an independent science, although specialists in one field frequently consult and cooperate with scholars in the other. Physical anthropology is generally classified as a natural science, while cultural anthropology is considered a social science.

Physical anthropology is concerned with the biological aspects of human beings. In trying to learn about racial differences, human origins, and evolution, the physical anthropologist studies fossil remains and observes the behaviour of other primates. Primates are an order of mammals that includes human beings as well as apes and monkeys.

Cultural anthropology deals primarily with the growth of human societies in the world. It is a study of group behaviour, the origins of religion, social customs and conventions, technical developments, and family relationships. A major sub field of cultural anthropology is linguistics, the study of the history and structure of language. Linguistics is a valuable tool of the anthropologist because it enables him to observe a people’s system of communication and to learn the ideas by which they view the world. It also enables him to collect an oral history of the group being studied. Oral histories are constructed from a society’s poems, songs, myths, proverbs, and folk tales.

Physical and cultural anthropology are connected by two other fields of study: archaeology and applied anthropology. In excavations, archaeologists find the remains of ancient buildings, tools, pottery, and other artefacts by which a past culture may be dated and described.

Applied anthropology makes use of the research done by physical and cultural anthropologists in order to help governments and other institutions form and implement policies for specific population groups. It may, for instance, aid governments of underdeveloped countries in showing backward peoples how to cope with the complexities of 20th-century civilization. It may also be used by governments in the formulation of social, educational, and economic policies for ethnic minorities within their borders. The work of applied anthropology is often done by specialists in the fields of economics, sociology, history, and psychology.

Because anthropology is such a wide-ranging discipline, investigating as it does every facet of all human societies, it must draw upon research done in other disciplines to form its conclusions. Among these disciplines are history, geography, geology, biology, anatomy, genetics, economics, psychology, and sociology, along with the highly specialized tasks of linguistics and archaeology already mentioned.

The Problem of Terminology

Different terms are used to describe the fields of anthropology in the United States and Europe. While in the United States the term anthropology is used to name the whole subject, in Europe the name ethnology is applied. (Ethnology is defined as the science that studies the many races of mankind their beginnings, characteristics, differences, and distribution.) What is called “cultural anthropology” in the United States is also termed “ethnology” in European countries. The term physical anthropology is used in both parts of the world.

The sub areas of cultural anthropology in the United States are three: historical anthropology (or ethnology), prehistory (or prehistoric archaeology), and linguistics (or linguistic anthropology). In Europe the sub areas are: ethnology (in the strictest sense as the historical description and comparison of races), prehistory (or prehistoric ethnology), and linguistics (or linguistic ethnology).


The science of physical anthropology has focused to a great extent on determining the place of human beings in nature, on comparing them with lower primates, and on interpreting the physical differences among the races. In pursuing its goals, physical anthropology has used the sciences of comparative anatomy, evolution, and genetics.

Early Investigations

Modern physical anthropology began taking shape in the first half of the 19th century when there arose a great interest in studying the origins of mankind, the biological relationships between the races, and the changeability of man as an animal species. In working out their theories, anthropologists devised a framework called the “great chain of being.” This was a model of nature that arranged all species in a hierarchical order, from the lowest to the highest. The point of this notion was to discover if there was steady progression from lower life forms up through the lower primates (apes and monkeys) to human beings. Since no continuous progression to human beings could at first be found, scientists theorized that there must be a “missing link” between the lower primates and man.

In order to classify and distinguish between the apes, monkeys, and races of man, the anthropologists have used comparative anatomy, measuring brain size, cranial capacity, arm and leg length, and height. They have also noted the colour of skin and personality traits as clues for putting animals and races in their proper order.

The work of most 19th-century anthropologists was hampered by ignorance in a number of areas, including an ignorance that has since been dissipated by geology, astronomy, archaeology, and the biological sciences. The age of the Earth was unknown. Many people, in accordance with the religious teachings of the time, believed it to be about 6,000 years old. Religious teaching also suggested that all species were created at one time, thus precluding any evolution from lower to higher forms. The first archaeological discoveries indicating the very ancient origins of mankind were not made until the middle of the 19th century, and then many anthropologists ignored or disputed them. The first major breakthrough for anthropologists came in the natural sciences when in 1859 Charles Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’.

Evolution, as first described by Darwin, was a crucial concept for anthropologists in reaching an understanding of the origins of man. The essential impact for the evolution of man was the idea of natural selection, although many decades passed before its implications were appreciated or employed. Darwin showed that nature selects those forms that are better adapted to a particular geographic zone and way of life. The notion of adaptation implied that organisms changed slowly over millions of years. It also disqualified any need for a “missing link,” although this theory persisted well into the 20th century. The missing link had not been considered to be a product of evolutionary development but a creature placed between man and ape in the natural order of things.

Modern Physical Anthropology

A major shift in the approach to physical anthropology occurred at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of genetic principles and of the ABO blood groups. Genetics was actually rediscovered. In 1865 an Austrian monk, Gregor J. Mendel, had formulated the first laws of heredity and laid the foundation of the science of genetics. His findings were almost entirely ignored at the time. In 1900 three other European botanists arrived at the same conclusions that Mendel had published 35 years earlier, and in researching the literature on the subject they found his work.

Genes are the units within sex cells such as the sperm and egg that transmit specific hereditary traits from one generation to the next. The study of inherited traits has become essential to anthropologists in seeking to understand human variations and differences between races. Genetics has modified the theory of progressive evolution somewhat, because it has been shown by experiment that there may be genetic reversals that is, reversions back to traits and characteristics thought to be discarded in the hereditary process.

Early in the 20th century another Austrian, a physician named Karl Landsteiner, discovered the blood groups, or types, known as O, A, B, and AB. This led anthropologists to investigate blood differences among the races. They have noted that certain races and sub races have particular distributions of one or another blood type. This has enabled scientists to categorize the races and, since blood types are genetically determined, to trace early migration patterns.

Dating is crucial for physical anthropologists, as well as for geologists and archaeologists. It is a method that allows them to determine how old something is whether it be a layer of rocks, a human-like fossil, or a collection of pottery.

There are two kinds of dating: relative and absolute. Relative dating shows the order in which events occurred but does not tell exactly when they occurred. Methods of absolute dating indicate with a fair degree of precision how old something is. Of the two types of dating, the determination of relative age relationships came into use first. Absolute dating depends upon technological advances that have been made in the 20th century.

Geologists and archaeologists have long used relative dating methods to determine the approximate age of the Earth and of fossils and artefacts Geologists examine the many strata of the Earth’s crust to determine the intervals of time from one layer of rock to another. Archaeologists also use the principle of layering to verify the sequence of human cultures.

Another method of determining relative age is fluorine dating. It is based upon the principle that fossil bones absorb the element fluorine from the soil in which they are buried. The longer they are buried, the more fluorine the bones will contain. Determining the amount of fluorine is often not a practical means of relative dating because it requires many samples from an immediate area.

Absolute dating attempts to pinpoint when a given rock, fossil, or other object reached its present condition. The basic method for determining absolute age is called radiometry measuring the rate of radioactive decay of an element. This can be done with a high degree of accuracy, although no method is infallible without a great deal of corroborative testing.

One of the types of absolute dating that has been used by physical anthropologists is potassium-argon dating. It is a method of determining the time of origin of rocks and thereby of the fossils found within them by measuring the amount of decay of potassium-40, a radioactive isotope of the element potassium, into the element argon, one of the rare gases. The half-life of potassium-40, which is the time it will take one half of any quantity of it to decay into potassium, is 1,265,000,000 years. Potassium-argon dating has been used to measure the ages of a wide variety of objects, from meteorites 4,500,000,000 years old to volcanic rocks only 20,000 years old. Such dating techniques applied to the remains and surroundings of ancient human beings have constantly pushed back the estimated age of mankind. By the early 1980s man was believed to be at least 3 million years old. This is based on the dating of a number of remarkable discoveries of fossil remains made in the Great Rift Valley of Africa, at sites in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.


Cultural anthropologists are concerned with the origin and development of human societies in all their complexity. Cultural anthropology attempts to devise theories to explain the origin of aspects of various human cultures, each of which has unique features as well as characteristics in common with other societies.

Within the field of cultural anthropology, several schools of thought have arisen some mutually contradictory since the 19th century. Among them are evolutionism, historical particularism, diffusionism, functionalism, structuralism, and neo-evolutionism.


The theory of biological evolution was first formally presented by Charles Darwin in ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. This theory argued that man is an animal and possesses many of the same instincts and needs as do other social animals. Darwin stated that successful species adapted to changing environmental conditions, and that through a process he called natural selection only the most adaptable individuals or groups survive.

Lewis Henry Morgan, (1818-81), U.S. archaeologist and ethnologist, born near Aurora, N.Y. (‘League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois’; ‘Ancient Society’); bequeathed fund to found women’s college in University of Rochester.

Nineteenth-century anthropologists applied these theories to their cultural studies. They believed that all societies follow a universal sequence in their development, and that all men possess the same thought processes and basic mental structure. In 1855, for example, sociologist Herbert Spencer claimed that all societies develop from simple to more complex groups. According to Lewis H. Morgan of the United States, the three basic stages that all societies must pass through are savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Each of these stages, he believed, is characterized by specific technological developments.

A related 19th-century approach that applied evolution to society focused on stages of religious thought. Sir Edward Tylor, an English anthropologist, argued that these stages are animism, or a belief in the soul and in spirits; polytheism, or a belief in more than one god; and monotheism, or a belief in one god. Tylor also suggested that some groups could skip particular stages in their cultural development by learning from other cultures.

Another kind of cultural evolution was proposed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This theory defined a society by its method of producing goods and services and presented a developmental sequence that included necessary social conflict.

Cultural evolutionists analysed aspects of modern cultures that seemed to have survived from previous stages. They developed a number of points of view that are considered valuable contributions to anthropology. Among these are the concept of culture itself, the methods of comparing different cultures, and concepts for the study of social organizations.

Two major works in the field of anthropology, Sir James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ (1890) and Ernest Crawley’s ‘Mystic Rose’ (1902), contained vast amounts of research on primitive and traditional societies and tended to reinforce the theories of evolutionists. Both were encyclopaedic collections of customs, religious and magical practices, and much other curious data. Evolutionists saw evidence of a sequence of magical, religious, and scientific thought that seemed to be part of the development of every human society.

Historical Particularism

By the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists in Great Britain, Germany, and the United States were questioning the belief that all societies developed in much the same way. They suggested that each culture was unique because each had its separate geography, history, creativity, and degree of contact with its neighbours

One of the first to reject evolutionism was a German-born American anthropologist, Franz Boas. Boas emphasized the importance of fieldwork and observation. Fieldwork involves seeking information about a particular group’s behaviour by gathering data and recording observable behaviours in that group’s natural environment.

Boas believed that every aspect of a culture should be recorded and that the anthropologist studying a native culture should not only learn its language but should attempt to think like its people. Boas emphasized the importance of collecting information that described the individuals and their interrelationships in a particular culture. Such information was gathered through the recording of life histories and folklore, and then connecting these details with archaeological and historical data. Boas also believed that similarities among different cultures were the result of similar outside influences rather than to the similarity in thought processes or to any universal laws of development. He stressed the importance of analysing a culture within its historical context.

Boas is known as the founder of the culture history school of anthropology, which dominated American cultural anthropology for much of the 20th century. Anthropologists who followed Boas’ theories included Ruth Benedict, Alfred L. Kroeber, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir.


Posted 2011/12/14 by Stelios in Education

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