What is Physical Anthropology

Anthropology is one of the most widely misunderstood scientific disciplines. This might be expected, since the word anthropology means “the study of man”. That is quite an ambitious discipline! Because of this, anthropology often intersects and is informed by a wide variety of disciplines, such as: history, psychology, sociology, literature, religion, biology, political science, and philosophy. 

Modern anthropology is divided into four major branches. These are: Cultural Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics, and Physical Anthropology. This article will take a closer look at physical anthropology.

Physical anthropology, often called biological anthropology, is the study of the physical development of the human body and the human species (especially compared with other primates). Physical anthropologists also try to trace the evolution of humans and other primates. Physical anthropologists, above all things, love bones! Bones are the most common form of fossil evidence, and are a great way for anthropologists to trace the development of our species over time.

Physical anthropologists are usually pretty good at putting together a detailed profile of someone based only on a small bone fragment. By only examining a small part of a bone, they can often determine whether the person was male or female, what race they belonged to, their approximate height and weight, and their age. Because of this skill, physical anthropologists are often consulted when a police force is trying to solve a crime, and many pursue careers in CSI work.

Because of its extremely technical nature about the human body, an undergraduate degree in physical anthropology is often an excellent preparatory course of study for admittance into medical school, though it is not the most common route.

Physical Anthropology can be grouped into several sub-branches. Some of these include:

  • Genetics: This is the study of human DNA, how each person’s DNA differs from another’s, and how human DNA differs from related species.
  • Primatology: This is the study of other primates. By studying apes and monkeys, anthropologists hope to gain more insight into human nature.
  • Behavioral Ecology: This usually involves the study of modern hunter-gatherer groups. Cultural anthropologists are often interested in learning about the cultural practices of hunter-gatherers, but when physical anthropologists study them, they usually take more detailed measurements on things like: calories consumed per day, calories expended, time spent hunting/foraging, age at reproduction, death and birth rates, etc. By collecting a large amount of data across many hunter-gatherer groups, anthropologists hope to put together a picture of the characteristics of a “natural” human.

There are many other sub-branches as well. Neuro-anthropologists study the human brain, and paleopathologists study diseases in ancient man and animals. Lately, physical anthropologists have been branching into the field of nutrition to share their ideas about the proper human diet based on their study of hunter-gatherers.

Hopefully this article taught you a little about the fascinating field of physical anthropology. Although the field is unknown to many people, physical anthropologists are diligently working to try to solve some of the most central problems of the human condition.