Physical Anthropology

An Introduction to Physical Anthropology

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Physical anthropology (also known a biological anthropology) is both a biological science and a social science. It encompasses the variability, adaptation and evolution of humans and their ancient and current relatives, studied in a cultural and behavioral context. It is one of the four subfields of anthropology, along with archeology, cultural anthropology and linguistics. It covers a wide spectrum of scientific inquiry, including demography and health, the mechanisms of biological evolution, human and molecular genetics, growth and development, human adaptability and variation, medical anthropology, Paleoanthropology (the study of the fossil record of human evolution), primate studies, and skeletal anthropology..

Biological anthropology is a fascinating mixture of social and biological studies within the two primary concept areas of human evolution and biosocial variations. In order to understand how human evolved from earlier life forms, anthropologist study our closest relatives, the primates (homo sapiens, apes, monkeys, and prosimians such as the lemur). Primatologists gather information by observing small captive colonies as well as wild populations. Their findings about the behavior and environment may help endangered species (including us!) survive into the future.

Paleoanthropologists use the techniques of archeology to uncover the skeletal remains of distant ancestors. Through the study of fossils, our ancestry has been traced back several million years. Louis Leakey (1903 - 1972), who unveiled the ancient species homo habilis in 1964, demonstrated that early human ancestors were probably living on the continent of Africa long before Australia or the Americas were inhabited by people. This finding was supported by the Human Genome Project, which shows that European and Asian populations are a genetic subset of the African populations. This has changed what we thought we knew about the origin of human beings.

Biological anthropologists study living human populations in a number of overlapping categories such as nutrition, child growth, health, genetic similarities and diversity, and adaptation to the environment. When studying the survival of Eskimos in the cold and dark of the Arctic, they consider not only the biological adaptations, but also the clever behavioral adaptations which make life possible in such in inhospitable environment. Anthropological studies of a strange culturally-based disease in New Guinea led to the discovery of a new class of infectious organisms, netting its discoverer, Dr. Carleon Gajdusek, the Nobel Prize.

Those who wish to work in this field have an almost infinite variety of specialties to choose from. They can take on the functions of educators, researchers, geneticists, community health care planners, primate specialists, students of human remains, or demographers. Around one in eight American physical anthropologists is affiliated with a medical school, usually in the department of anatomy. They may be found working in departments of physiology, nutrition, or genetics, as well as athletics and physical education programs. Many physical biologists work in the field rather than in conventional laboratory settings. Their insights and discoveries, integrated with the discoveries of the other subfields of anthropology, will continue to bring us closer to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of humankind. If we know what we are and where we've been, it may be easier for us to figure out where we are going.

Sources and resources:
American Association of Physical Anthropologsts
resources by Canadian Association of Physical Anthropology
biological anthropology tutorials

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