An Introduction to Physical Anthropology

Physical anthropology explores the relationships between the body and culture. Sound like a broad topic? You bet, and physical anthropologists explore it all.

Best known today perhaps are the forensic anthropologists. These researchers understand the human skeleton as a living system, going beyond the science of how bones grow, or how diseases affect skeletal structure. How do our activities affect our bones? And how do our bones become part of the unique expression of who we are? Forensic anthropologists can often identify even partial skeletal remains. This skill makes for good TV drama, but has been far more important in military efforts to identify soldiers, prisoners of war, and victims of genocide.

Paleoanthropologists study skeletal remains from the earliest eras of human development. They want to understand the evolution of early hominids. This includes the biological relationships among prehistoric skeletal remains, but goes beyond biology to learn about behavior and culture. Paleoanthropologists want to understand how early humans lived, what they ate, what ate them, and what their societies might have been like.

Our understanding of human evolution is enhanced by understanding our closest genetic cousins, the primates. Yes, anthropology is the study of humans and human cultures, but primatology is also included as one branch of physical anthropology. Studies of gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons, both in captivity and in the wild, offer glimmers of insight into the earliest humans.

Physical anthropologists work with living people as well. Their work includes an understanding of how we adapt physically to our environments. For example, research on communities living high in the Andes Mountains helped physicians understand how high altitudes stress the human body, and what the body does to accommodate. Studies of the peoples native to the Arctic helped design clothing, equipment, and safety procedures for Arctic explorers coming from milder climates.

We humans are variable folks, and physical anthropology helps us understand that diversity. Today, studies of human diversity are based in genetics rather than physical characteristics. Looking at genetic patterns over time helps us understand how populations grew, moved from place to place, met new groups, and changed over time. This work has led to fascinating glimpses into ancient genealogies, but also helps scientists and physicians understand how mutations occur and how certain conditions and diseases are maintained in populations.

Physical anthropologists work in museums and research institutes, in colleges and universities, with zoos and primate centers. They also hold positions with, or serve as consultants to, governments, the military, health organizations, and corporations. Wherever there is a need to understand how the human body adapts to its environment, and how cultural systems help in that process, physical anthropology has a contribution to make.