The Difference between Anthropology and Archaeology Explained

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"The Difference between Anthropology and Archaeology Explained"
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If you're an anthropologist, are you an archaeologist? Or maybe all archaeologists are anthropologists? Is there even a difference?

In truth, all archaeologists are anthropologists, but not all anthropologists are archaeologists. Anthropology is the study of humanity in its entirety: where we've come from, what we have, what we think and do, how we do it, how we relate to our own culture and to other cultures, and how our culture relates to other cultures. Anthropology is divided into four sub-disciplines dedicated to puzzling out a solution, and archaeology is one of them. The other three are socio-cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and physical anthropology.

Archaeologists study our collective past through material culture: our tools, art, writing, graves, buildings, beads, pottery, and roads. They piece together our history via the things that we've made or altered in some form, from the very first simple stone tools made over 2 million years ago by our genetic ancestors, to the foundations laid and nails dropped by our grandparents and great-grandparents. Archaeological data tends to be more tangible than anthropological theories (from any sub-discipline); it's less precise than physical anthropology (which employs hard science in its quest for answers); and the fieldwork tends to be more physically demanding, remote, and dirty than fieldwork done by the other disciplines. For this reason, and possibly due to the stereotypical idea of archaeology propigated by Indiana Jones, archaeologists are sometimes refered to as the "cowboys of anthropology".

Unlike the archaeologists who study our things, socio-cultural anthropologists study what we think and do, and linguistic anthropologists study what we say, how we say it, and what we mean. Both groups gather data via ethnographies, but linguistic anthropologists also deal with language aquisition in children and primates to better understand how language developed in humans. Socio-culturalists and linguists tend to rely more upon theories than archaeologists, since the data that they collect is more ephemeral than arrowheads and ancient pots.

They do, however, collaborate with archaeologists to study our past. To understand a present society one must understand how they thought in the past, and this can be divined through the stories and histories passed down and by through the society's material remains. Therefore, socio-culturalists and linguists can help to interpret the artifacts that archaeologists find, and archaeologists can help reunite societies with aspects of their culture that have been forgotten over time.

Linguists, too, collaborate with archaeologists. Not only do they help collect the stories that may explain or discover sites, but some linguists also study the spread of language (and presumably cultural groups) across a landscape via the sounds, words, and grammars that crop up in modern languages. Currently there is work going on that helps track the peopling of the Americas (what Asian cultural group crossed the Pacific ocean?) and the migration of Dene peoples from the high north in Alaska and Canada to the Navajo in the midwestern United States.

Cross-discipline collaboration is often strongest between archaeologists and physical anthropologists, as both groups will take their trowels out to remote locations to uncover the past. Physical anthropologists study the evolution of humans from tree-dwelling primates to our bipedal present, but they rely more upon chemistry and statistics - hard science - than archaeologists are able to. If an archaeologist found the Franklin expedition, then it was a physical anthropologist who revealed that they died of pneumonia, botulism, and lead poisoning, and that they had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive in the Arctic. If an archaeologist discovers a lost city, a physical anthropologist can study its graveyard to reveal population dynamics (male to female ratio, primary causes of death in the population, and the averege lifespan of the group) and what their diet consisted of, as revealed by the chemical composition of their bones.

Whether you're an archaeologist, a socio-cultural anthropologist, a linguistic anthropologist, or a physical anthropologist, you'll study humanity. The idea of what it is to be human encompasses our past and our present, and one cannot be ignored in favour of the other if we wish to clearly define ourselves as a species. We're complicated, multi-faceted and multi-cultural beings, and there is no one, singlular way to arrive at an answer to the question: what does it mean to be human?

Anthropology provides several answers, including an archaeological one, to the problem of humanity. All archaeologists are anthropologists, after all, but not all anthropologists dig up for answers one trowel of dirt at a time.

More about this author: Eva Pronovost

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