The Difference between Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology

Cultural anthropology, also known as socio-cultural anthropology, and archaeology are quite closely related to each other. They both belong to the larger academic field of anthropology, the study of all human experience. This field is also occupied by linguistic anthropologists and biological or physical anthropologists. Each of these subfields tackles a different facet of human existence, and none of these can exclusively be called “anthropology;” however, in common speech, the term “anthropology” often refers to the socio-cultural discipline.

Out of these four disciplines, socio-cultural anthropology and archaeology are practically identical in their purposes. Both intend to find out as much as possible about a culture and the ways that members of a society function within that culture. However, because cultural anthropology studies cultures that exist today and archaeology studies cultures of the past, the methodology of each discipline is considerably different.

A cultural anthropologist typically will pick a culture or demographic that interests them, and then will live within the confines of that group of people for anywhere from six to twenty-four months. They will eat, sleep, talk, laugh, dance, and play with the people that they are studying. They will ask questions about rituals and everyday life. Often a cultural anthropologist will go to their chosen field with a specific question in mind that will help them better explore universal elements of the human condition such as birth, death, family relations, or taboo.

An archaeologist, on the other hand, has no such luxury. The people that they study are long gone from the place where the archaeologist works. An archaeologist will find a place where it is likely that a group of people lived, and then set about methodically searching for the material remains of those people. Sometimes a stone projectile point or a broken bit of pottery poking out of the side of a mound is the only indication of a possible site. Other times, mammoth pillars of stone jut out of the jungle, marking the spot where people once lived. Careful calculations, soil samplings, carbon dating, and a host of other scientific tests done over many decades are what is required to shed any light on the cultures of the past.

In the end, the socio-cultural anthropologist and the archaeologist have the same goal of discovering as much as possible about humans’ existence and experiences. The socio-cultural anthropologist may use his voice and ears, and the archaeologist uses science and logic, but both contribute to the complete understanding of the human condition.