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This lesson will seek to give an overview of physical anthropology, a branch of science that encompasses both biology and social science. In doing so, it will highlight fossils, Homo Sapiens, and paleontology.


(Video available on February 2016)

Lesson Transcript

Definition of Terms

Today’s lesson will be a brief overview of physical anthropology. Sometimes referred to as biological anthropology, physical anthropology studies the supposed evolution, behavior, and physical variation of humans.

Building on the theory that all primates – humans, apes, and monkeys – are physically related, physical anthropology also studies living primates as well as the fossilized remains of past primates. Since this definition is a bit wordy, and since the branches of anthropology are very easy to confuse, we’re going to break this lesson down to the basics, focusing on three main points.

Here we go.

Biological and Social Science

Point number one – Physical anthropology is different from other sciences in that it encompasses both biology and social science. To explain, I’ll give a quick scenario. Suppose a biologist, an animal psychologist, and a physical anthropologist were walking in the jungle and came across a very sick ape surrounded by a bunch of healthy apes. Now, the biologist, being mostly concerned with the physical workings of the body, would probably want to step in and get to work taking blood samples or looking for physical causes of the illness. He’d have little interest in the healthy apes.

On the other hand, the psychologist, being a social scientist, would probably be more interested in seeing how the other apes responded to the sickness. He’d have questions like ‘Will the other apes offer some sort of comfort?’, ‘Will they try to nurse their sick member?’, or ‘How will the death of the ape affect the others around him?’

However, sort of combining these two approaches, the physical anthropologist would use his skills to try to understand the reasons for the physical sickness of the ape as well as how the other apes may respond to it. He’d then compare his physical and social findings to how humans would act in the very same scenario. Proving our first point, our physical anthropologist would be interested in both the physical and social aspects of science.

Origin and Evolution

Now onto point number two – Physical anthropology seeks to understand the origin of humans as well as their supposed evolution. In other words, it wants to answer the question ‘How did we get here and how have we changed since being here?’

In order to answer this question, physical anthropologists will also try their hands at the science of paleontology, the study of the emergence of humans and their later physical evolution. In trying to theorize on how we came to be, human paleontologists search for and study buried, hardened remains or impressions of humans known as fossils. As our point number two points out, their goal is to understand our origin as well as our theorized evolution.

Modern Day Variations

With this, we come to our last point about physical anthropology, point number three – physical anthropology seeks to understand why modern human populations vary biologically. In other words, if all humans belong to the species Homo Sapien, then why are we all so very different-looking and acting? With this in mind, physical anthropologists busy themselves with questions like ‘Why are some people groups fair-skinned, while others are darker? Is it because a darker skin tone offers shielding from the sun?’ Also, why are some people groups taller than others? Was it to make them better hunters, able to see further in the distance?

In seeking to answer these questions, and many, many more, physical anthropologists employ the tools of several biological disciplines, specifically that of human genetics, the study of human traits, and epidemiology, the study of how different diseases affect different populations. Quite serendipitously, the fact that physical anthropologists use biological science to understand modern social cultures of today brings us full circle back to our point number one – physical anthropology is different from many sciences in that it dabbles in both biology and social science.

Lesson Summary

Physical anthropology, also known as biological anthropology, studies the supposed evolution, behavior, and physical variations of humans. It also asserts that all primates ( humans, apes, and monkeys) are physically related.

As a branch of anthropology, physical anthropology sets itself apart from many others in that it encompasses both biology and social science. In other words, it’s not just interested in physical biology; it’s also interested in behavior and emotion.

Physical anthropology also seeks to understand the origin and theorized evolution of man. In doing this, it uses paleontology, the study of the emergence of humans and their later physical evolution, as a tool. This often leads to the study of fossils, the buried, hardened remains or impressions of humans.

Adding to this, physical anthropology seeks to understand why modern Homo Sapiens, or humans, differ biologically across cultures. In doing this, physical anthropologists employ human genetics, the study of human traits, and epidemiology, the study of how different diseases affect different populations.

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