The Difference between Anthropology and Archaeology Explained

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In May 1994, I graduated from college with a Bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology. But because of a sharp turn in my career path, I didn't pursue a Ph.D. in the field. I did, however, receive a firm foundation in anthropological studies.

Deemed "social sciences," both anthropology and archeology generally study cultures and societies. However, it is important to delineate the sub-disciplines of these areas of research. Although a majority of colleges and universities place archeology as a sub-field within their broader anthropology departments, both have key differences; yet at the same time, they complement each other and present a fascinating picture of human societies both past and present.

Many people mistakenly believe anthropologists simply study old bones and relate them to the theory of evolution. However, this is only one sub-field of anthropology called physical anthropology. While some anthropologists most certainly do scour the earth for eons-old human remains, cultural anthropologists study peoples and cultures around the world.

Most often, cultural anthropologists live with indigenous cultures for a period of time to study their entire way of life: how they dress, how they maintain oral hygiene, what they eat, how they dispose of solid waste, their religious rituals, interrelations between families and those of the opposite sex, how they obtain their food, and their indigenous land rights. Going further, ethnolinguists study a culture's language, and ethnomusicologists study a culture's musical traditions. So as you can see, there exists much diversity in the field of anthropology.

I get excited about all things anthropology, but I get especially giddy when it comes to archaeological projects and new discoveries. I'm the kind that just has to investigate abandoned structures when I see them; and places like Chaco Canyon, Bandalier, and Puye Cliff Dwellings really get my imagination going. How did these people live? What did they eat? How did they survive without microwaves, cars, and televisions? What were their religious views? What did they do from day to day? How did they approach medical problems? Perhaps this is why I tend to watch Indiana Jones several times a year. "Fortune and glory kid, fortune and glory!"

Though many sub-fields exist for archeology as well, it is generally defined as the study of ancient peoples and cultures through their physical remains. That is to say, their pottery, art, dwelling structures, religious artifacts, cooking utensils, ceremonial buildings, and jewelry among other things. So while anthropology studies present cultures, archeology studies societies of the past.

One fascinating sub-discipline of archeology is Egyptology. We all know about mummies and hieroglyphics, but we still don't know for certain how the ancient pyramids were built. But the history, culture, and religion of ancient Egypt truly shaped the Middle East and beyond.

Anthropology and archeology are broad-spectrum social sciences that offer various opportunities to study cultures throughout time. For more information on the two fields, see the University of Texas Anthropology Department page @

More about this author: Daniel J. Gansle

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