Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
Introduction to Anthropology

4.1 What Is Biological Anthropology?

Introduction to Anthropology4.1 What Is Biological Anthropology?

Menu
Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. 1 What Is Anthropology?
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Study of Humanity, or "Anthropology Is Vast"
    3. 1.2 The Four-Field Approach: Four Approaches within the Guiding Narrative
    4. 1.3 Overcoming Ethnocentrism
    5. 1.4 Western Bias in Our Assumptions about Humanity
    6. 1.5 Holism, Anthropology’s Distinctive Approach
    7. 1.6 Cross-Cultural Comparison and Cultural Relativism
    8. 1.7 Reaching for an Insider’s Point of View
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  3. 2 Methods: Cultural and Archaeological
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Archaeological Research Methods
    3. 2.2 Conservation and Naturalism
    4. 2.3 Ethnography and Ethnology
    5. 2.4 Participant Observation and Interviewing
    6. 2.5 Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis
    7. 2.6 Collections
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  4. 3 Culture Concept Theory: Theories of Cultural Change
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 The Homeyness of Culture
    3. 3.2 The Winkiness of Culture
    4. 3.3 The Elements of Culture
    5. 3.4 The Aggregates of Culture
    6. 3.5 Modes of Cultural Analysis
    7. 3.6 The Paradoxes of Culture
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  5. 4 Biological Evolution and Early Human Evidence
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 What Is Biological Anthropology?
    3. 4.2 What’s in a Name? The Science of Taxonomy
    4. 4.3 It’s All in the Genes! The Foundation of Evolution
    5. 4.4 Evolution in Action: Past and Present
    6. 4.5 What Is a Primate?
    7. 4.6 Origin of and Classification of Primates
    8. 4.7 Our Ancient Past: The Earliest Hominins
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  6. 5 The Genus Homo and the Emergence of Us
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Defining the Genus Homo
    3. 5.2 Tools and Brains: Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus
    4. 5.3 The Emergence of Us: The Archaic Homo
    5. 5.4 Tracking Genomes: Our Human Story Unfolds
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  7. 6 Language and Communication
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 The Emergence and Development of Language
    3. 6.2 Language and the Mind
    4. 6.3 Language, Community, and Culture
    5. 6.4 Performativity and Ritual
    6. 6.5 Language and Power
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  8. 7 Work, Life, and Value: Economic Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Economies: Two Ways to Study Them
    3. 7.2 Modes of Subsistence
    4. 7.3 Gathering and Hunting
    5. 7.4 Pastoralism
    6. 7.5 Plant Cultivation: Horticulture and Agriculture
    7. 7.6 Exchange, Value, and Consumption
    8. 7.7 Industrialism and Postmodernity
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  9. 8 Authority, Decisions, and Power: Political Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Colonialism and the Categorization of Political Systems
    3. 8.2 Acephalous Societies: Bands and Tribes
    4. 8.3 Centralized Societies: Chiefdoms and States
    5. 8.4 Modern Nation-States
    6. 8.5 Resistance, Revolution, and Social Movements
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  10. 9 Social Inequalities
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Theories of Inequity and Inequality
    3. 9.2 Systems of Inequality
    4. 9.3 Intersections of Inequality
    5. 9.4 Studying In: Addressing Inequities within Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  11. 10 The Global Impact of Human Migration
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 Peopling of the World
    3. 10.2 Early Global Movements and Cultural Hybridity
    4. 10.3 Peasantry and Urbanization
    5. 10.4 Inequality along the Margins
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  12. 11 Forming Family through Kinship
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 What Is Kinship?
    3. 11.2 Defining Family and Household
    4. 11.3 Reckoning Kinship across Cultures
    5. 11.4 Marriage and Families across Cultures
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  13. 12 Gender and Sexuality
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Anthropology
    3. 12.2 Performing Gender Categories
    4. 12.3 The Power of Gender: Patriarchy and Matriarchy
    5. 12.4 Sexuality and Queer Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  14. 13 Religion and Culture
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 What Is Religion?
    3. 13.2 Symbolic and Sacred Space
    4. 13.3 Myth and Religious Doctrine
    5. 13.4 Rituals of Transition and Conformity
    6. 13.5 Other Forms of Religious Practice
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  15. 14 Anthropology of Food
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 Food as a Material Artifact
    3. 14.2 A Biocultural Approach to Food
    4. 14.3 Food and Cultural Identity
    5. 14.4 The Globalization of Food
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  16. 15 Anthropology of Media
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 Putting the Mass into Media
    3. 15.2 Putting Culture into Media Studies
    4. 15.3 Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Film
    5. 15.4 Photography, Representation, and Memory
    6. 15.5 News Media, the Public Sphere, and Nationalism
    7. 15.6 Community, Development, and Broadcast Media
    8. 15.7 Broadcasting Modernity and National Identity
    9. 15.8 Digital Media, New Socialities
    10. Key Terms
    11. Summary
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Bibliography
  17. 16 Art, Music, and Sport
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Anthropology of the Arts
    3. 16.2 Anthropology of Music
    4. 16.3 An Anthropological View of Sport throughout Time
    5. 16.4 Anthropology, Representation, and Performance
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  18. 17 Medical Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 What Is Medical Anthropology?
    3. 17.2 Ethnomedicine
    4. 17.3 Theories and Methods
    5. 17.4 Applied Medical Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  19. 18 Human-Animal Relationship
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Humans and Animals
    3. 18.2 Animals and Subsistence
    4. 18.3 Symbolism and Meaning of Animals
    5. 18.4 Pet-Keeping
    6. 18.5 Animal Industries and the Animal Trade
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  20. 19 Indigenous Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Indigenous Peoples
    3. 19.2 Colonization and Anthropology
    4. 19.3 Indigenous Agency and Rights
    5. 19.4 Applied and Public Anthropology and Indigenous Peoples
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  21. 20 Anthropology on the Ground
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Our Challenging World Today
    3. 20.2 Why Anthropology Matters
    4. 20.3 What Anthropologists Can Do
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  22. Index

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the five subfields of biological anthropology.
  • Explain how each of the subfields contributes to our understanding of human origins and evolution.
  • Understand the historical context of the field of biological anthropology.

Looking to the Deep Past

Biological anthropology, also referred to as physical anthropology or evolutionary anthropology, is one of the four major subfields of anthropology. While the other subfields focus on current and relatively recent human cultures, biological anthropology looks to the deeper past, asking questions about what it means to be human by exploring where humans came from as a species. Biological anthropology comprises numerous areas of study: human biological variation, paleoanthropology (human and primate evolution), primatology (the study of nonhuman primates), bioarchaeology (the study of bones found at archaeological sites), and genetic anthropology (the application of molecular science to archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidence to reveal the history of ancient human origins and migration). Each of these areas of study contributes something to anthropologists’ understanding of current human physical characteristics and behaviors.

Exploring What It Means to Be Human

Studies of human biological variation evaluate the physical similarities and differences between human populations across both time and space. Differences in morphology include features such as height, jawline, eye sockets, and ear and nose shape and size. Biochemical differences account for variations in the sense of smell, mutations in the CCR5 gene that offer resistance to HIV, and variations in skin pigmentation in response to levels of exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Five hands and forearms , each gripping the wrist of the one next to it. Skin tones range from deep brown to very light.
Figure 4.2 These variations in modern human skin pigmentation are the result of evolutionary adaptations to different levels of exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun. (credit: “School Diversity Many Hands Held Together” by Wonder woman0731/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The study of human biological variation is closely linked to the original conception of biological anthropology, which was formalized in 1930 with the establishment of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, recently renamed the American Association of Biological Anthropologists. The change in name is an effort to move away from the term physical anthropology, which has come to be associated with views promoting scientific racism that no longer represent or align with views held by anthropologists today. In 1951, American anthropologist Sherwood Washburn introduced a “new physical anthropology,” changing the focus from racial typology and classification to the study of human evolution and the evolutionary process. This new focus expanded anthropology as a field to include paleoanthropology and primatology

Paleoanthropology looks at the fossil evidence of humanity’s ancestors along with ancient material culture such as tools and other human artifacts. The physical morphology (shape and size) of skulls and other postcranial material (skeletal remains other than the skull) allow paleoanthropologists to form hypotheses about important milestones in human evolution over time.

Primatology examines the behavioral and physical attributes of both living and fossil primates as well as their relationships with their environments. Humans are primates who share a common ancestry with nonhuman primates. By studying nonhuman primates, anthropologists can gain a better understanding of what it means to be a primate and what it means to be human.

Genetic anthropology is used within several areas of biological anthropology. In this specialized area, DNA testing is combined with archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidence to reveal the history of ancient human migration or to track human disease.

Forensic anthropology is a subfield of biological anthropology that applies scientific methods to the analysis of human remains for the purposes of identifying a victim and determining the possible cause of death. A major difference between forensic anthropology and other types of biological anthropology is that forensic anthropology is usually focused on crime scenes involving the death of an individual, whereas other types primarily focus on understanding patterns and features that may appear in a group or an entire population. Beginning in World War II, forensic anthropologists have been instrumental in helping identify victims of war and disasters. They have played critical roles in identifying victims of the Thailand tsunami in 2004 and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Today, most forensic anthropologists work in a medical examiner’s office, assisting with autopsies and examinations of skeletal remains.

Bioarchaeology studies human remains in archaeological settings with a focus on what skeletal material can reveal about the culture, diet, and presence of disease in a population. Bioarchaeologists are also interested in the socioecological system of a population, which helps anthropologists better understand the roles of environmental and ecological pressures and influences in shaping cultural identity, social inequity, sustainability, and access to and use of resources. Based on the biological remains found at archaeological sites, bioarchaeologists explore questions pertaining to social and funerary behavior, diet and nutrition, health, and disease. Bioarchaeology offers a window into the connections among biology, society, and culture. An example of what a bioarchaeologist might study is skeletal evidence of infant cranial boarding, which was practiced by many cultures, including the ancient Maya, the Inca, and some Native North American groups. The process involved binding a child’s head to a flat board in order to artificially deform the skull, possibly to meet an aesthetic ideal or to signify social status. Bioarcheologists have found that variations in how the board was attached to the skull provide important information about an individual’s social identity.

Unusually shaped skull on display in a museum. The back of the skull is much longer and larger than in a typical skull.
Figure 4.3 This elongated skull is from a member of the Nazca culture, which flourished in what is now Peru in the years 100 BCE to 800 CE. It’s long, oval shape is the result of infant cranial bonding, the practice of deliberately shaping the development of an infant’s skull by bonding it to stiff boards. (credit: “Nasca Peru Deformed Skull” by VasenkaPhotography/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Profiles in Anthropology

Ann Rosalie David
1946-

Woman with white hair and wire rim glasses standing in front of a display case filled with skulls.
Figure 4.4 Professor Ann Rosalie David, Egyptologist and forensic and biological anthropologist at the University of Manchester, UK. (credit: Professor David, Public Domain)

Personal History: Professor Ann Rosalie David was born in Cardiff, UK and earned a bachelor of arts degree in ancient history from University College London in 1967 and a doctorate from the University of Liverpool in 1971. Her thesis was on ancient Egyptian temple rituals.

Area of Anthropology: The focus of Professor’s David’s work has been biological anthropology and Egyptology.

Accomplishments In the Field: Professor David is a Director of the KNH Centre for Biological and Forensic Studies in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. In this role, she established the Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank, one of the only such tissue banks in the world. She served as the keeper of Egyptology at the Manchester Museum and has often worked in collaboration with Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population on public health projects. One such project involved the identification of antibodies against schistosomiasis, a parasite spread by freshwater snails, in Egyptian mummies.

David was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2003 for her work in Egyptology. David has appeared in or consulted on several documentaries, including the television miniseries Private Lives of the Pharaohs (2000) and Secrets of the Pharaohs (2001) and the documentary short Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs (2007).

Importance of Her Work: Ann Rosalie David was the first woman in Britain to hold a professorship in Egyptology. She was a pioneer in biomedical research, conducting research on disease, diet, and lifestyles in ancient Egypt. In 2010, her work on ancient Egyptian mummies found evidence to suggest that cancer may be a human-created disease, attributable in part to modern pollution and changes in lifestyle and diet (David and Zimmerman 2010).

Podcast

In this podcast, Professor Rosalie discusses her work with ancient Egyptian mummies.

Do you know how you learn best?
Kinetic by OpenStax offers access to innovative study tools designed to help you maximize your learning potential.
Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-anthropology/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-anthropology/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Jun 13, 2022 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.