What is Biological Anthropology? An Introduction

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What is Biological Anthropology? An Introduction

The study of anthropology goes further than just examining rocks, and some would say that it’s not as exciting as going on adventures in unknown lands. The reality of biological anthropology isn’t as clear-cut as one would see in sci-fi movies, but it doesn’t make it any less fascinating. Biological anthropology goes into the physical details of man’s and the species’ existence during the early ages.

While archaeologists are busy trying to figure out what religious burial rituals were practiced centuries ago, biological anthropologists are more concerned with how man and other species have evolved over the ages. It’s true that most famous anthropological findings are related to archeology, but once you’re done with a little introduction, you’ll be glad we told you about some interesting bio-anthropology finds.

What is Biological Anthropology?

It’s also referred to as physical anthropology, and it’s a sub-field of anthropology that focuses on the behavior and biological aspects of humans. As a scientific discipline, it’s concerned with other factors like non-human primates and other species related to humansand gives a systematic approach to the study of homo sapiens

To be more detailed, biological anthropology itself divides into branches such as paleoanthropology, primatology, bioarchaeology, human behavioral ecology, and evolutionary biology. These branches delve into the biological study of humans on a deeper level, but it’s best to use a simple term that refers to all these sub-disciplines.

Early History of Biological Anthropology as a Science

The origins of the discipline date back to around 347 BC, when Plato, the Greek philosopher, put humans on the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae; all things were part of the chain, with deities at the topmost level, and manmade objects at the bottommost level. If we look back at history’s attempt to study human beings as living organisms, we go as far as Ancient Greece.

The scalanaturaeremained the primary system that scholars used to evaluate a being’s presence in nature, for centuries after Plato had created it. Then came Aristotle, who pointed out his observations in the text ‘History of Animals’, that humans are the only species to walk in an upright manner. He also noticed how humans don’t have a tail so it’s more comfortable when they sit down. He came to the conclusion that human features differ basedon the regionbecause of differing environmental conditions and climates.

The systematic study we know today began much later in the 17th centurywhen researchers began to classify humans on the basis of race. This led to some interesting findings that established the discipline as a legitimate science. In the upcoming years, bio-anthropology was set to become a leading science that would help mankind uncover scientific facts that would abolish arguments of racial discrimination.

Famous Biological Anthropologists

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German physician, was one of the first prominent biological anthropologists because of the Decas craniorum, his particularly large collection of skulls that he published around the beginning of the 19th century. Over time, many biological anthropologists have come forward with interesting theories and findings.

Sherwood Washburn

Considered a pioneer in the branch of primatology, Sherwood Washburn was a biological anthropologist who introduced a new form of physical anthropology by turning the focus away from racial typology to the evolutionof the human race. He expanded the discipline to include the study of primate species in their natural habitat.

With a deep interest for natural history, the young Sherwood Washburn would often work with collections and exhibits in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. With a focus on anthropology as his main areas of undergraduate and graduate studies from1935 to 1940, Sherwood Washburn studied human variability with population genetics rather than racial typology.

Philip V. Tobias

The South African paleoanthropologist is most famous for the work he did at the country’s hominid fossil sites. Primarily, hisstudies revolved around the human biology of Africa’s various indigenous populations. To date, he has studied the Tonga population of Zimbabwe and Zambia, the Kalahari San, and various other peoples belonging to South Africa.

He has also studied fossils from many other parts of the world, which enabled him to make a significant contribution towards the study of evolution and research on hominid fossils. His work on the hominids of East Africa also includes that of Olduvai Gorgeand is hailed as some of his best work. He was able to identify, describe and name the new species as Homo habilis.

Dame Jane Morris Goodall

Born in 1934, Dame Jane Goodall is an expert primatologist because of her half a decade-long study on the social interactions of wild chimpanzees. Her study began in 1960 when she first visited the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Passionate about Africa and animals, Jane Goodall has made countless efforts towards animal conservation and welfare.

Caroline Bond Day

One of the first African-Americans to receive a degree in anthropology, Caroline Day was born in 1889 and an educator by profession. Her physical anthropology theories and research helped challenge the ideas that lie behind scientific racism. She published her thesis, ‘A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States’ in 1932 after obtaining a master’s degree in anthropology two years prior.

To scientifically measure the hybridity of mixed race families, she determined fractions of racial types with blood-quantum language. She first recorded her own hybridity as well as her families, while her study contained anthropological and sociological information of over 300 mixed-racefamiliesand more than 400 photos. At the time, here study was termed controversial, so it wasn’t well-received in the community, but it definitely made an impact to eliminate racial preconceptions.

Earnest Hooton

A well-known physical anthropologist because of his theories on racial classification, Earnest Hooton was born in 1887 and had an interest in primatology. He wrote what’s known today as the ‘Hooton Plan’, but was formally an article called ‘Breed War Strain Out of Germans’. Published in PM, the New York newspaper, Hooton’s four-step plan was a method to eliminate German attitudes of nationalism and their aggressive ideology without compromising their desirable sociological and biological aspects.

He questioned white supremacy with his article ‘Is the Negro Inferior?’ that discussed race as an issue in the U.S. and defined race itself as a factor of inheritance. Not to mention, Hooton called out how the controversial intelligence tests used to asses and compare how intelligent members of different races are.

Fascinating Bio-Anthropological Finds

After studying a vast collection of human skulls, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach explained that mankind was divided into five races. Based on what part of the world these people lived in, he divided humans into Americans, Malayans, Aethopians, Mongolians, and Caucasians. However, this was just the beginning and even though these finds comprise mostly of theories, they definitely bringhumanity a step forward to discovering more about the species.  

Three Hundred Thousand-year old Homo Sapien Fossils in Morocco  

While digging in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, miners found an intact human skull which ignited a research journey that would last decades. This happened in 1961 and initiated studies into who these people were and where they were in the story on evolution. Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist, began new excavations in 2004 to date the remaining sediment and find out more about the fossils.

They soon found new human fossils like bones, jaws, skulls, andteeth, and discovered that 22 different individuals existed at the site. After thorough investigations to find out the age of these fossils, the team finally determined the fossils to be around 300,000 years old in 2017.

Chimpanzees Have Personalities

While studying the Kasakela community of chimpanzees at the national park in Tanzania, Jane Goodall made numerous interesting finds that researchers at the time may have overlooked. She gave each individual chimpanzee a name instead of numbering them and through consistent observation, determined that they all had individual personalities as humans do.

She observed various human-like gestures in the community, such as hugs and tickling, and insisted that these are evidence of family bonds. She also discovered that they are capable of emotions and rational thought, to a certain extent. Her findings challenged the science community’s beliefs that only humans could create and use tools,and that chimpanzees ate a vegetarian diet.

The Homo Naledi Fossils in South Africa

In 2017, an extinct species known as Homo Nalediwas discovered to have existed over 250,000 years ago. The fossils were discovered in the South African Rising Star Cave system in 2013 and two years later, and were assigned asHomogenus. Dr. Lee Berger led the team of researchers from the South Africa-based University of Witwatersrand.

The team recovered a large assemblyof homininfossils, a new species Homo Naledi. It had a much more human-life stature, such as a clavicle, feet, andlegs but it also shared similar features like hands, with earlier species.

The Peopling of Australia

The theory that Australia’s peopling happened as early as a couple of thousand years ago is deeply intriguing. Research estimates show that Homo sapiensmade their way to Australia very recently; around 47,000 years ago.

However, a University of Queensland team of researchers led by Dr. Chris Clarkson explained how excavating an aboriginal rock shelter changes this; it means that human occupation dates back as far as 65,000 years ago. Recent excavations indicate that these people survived on a diet of yams, nuts, andanimals, and used reflective pigment to make crayons.

The Future of Biological Anthropology  

The best part of any anthropological field is that you’re never really done discovering. Technological advances made in each decade can take the researchfurther than before. In case you’re interested, here’s where biological anthropology is going to help discover more about.

Understand Evolution Better

As we continue to discover more fossils and sediments, we can improve our understanding of where modern humans came from. By studying homininfossils, we can draw up a more detailed timeline of human existence through history, and determine our links with earlier species.

Advance Chronological Dating and Excavation  

Advancing methods of chronological dating, such as radiometric dating and thermoluminescence dating, means that we can narrow accurate down ages of fossils and other artifacts. With each development, we get closer to finding out more about our ancestors, and the inherent differences between humans from different places. Let’s not forget that improving excavation methods can help researchers uncover new fossils without disturbing the surrounding environment.

Learn about Population

Where did we come from? Have we always been here? Biological anthropology is looking to answers for questions like these. As of yet, we’ve been able to know about which parts of the world, such as Africa, faced human occupation earlier than others. Combined with other fields of anthropology, we can find out where our physical features originated and how we ended up in different parts of the world.

Career Options in Biological Anthropology

Thinking about studying biological anthropology? Here are some of the career options that you can choose from with a degree in biological anthropology.

Academic Careers

You’ll find that trained biological anthropologists can opt from a variety of academic careers. Most commonly, there are openings in colleges and universities for professors. As a professor, you’ll even have to give lectures as medical universities to teach about human anatomy.

Museum Jobs  

Museums that have anthropology and history exhibits are a great employment opportunity for biological anthropologists to show off their extensive knowledge about the human species, evolution and our link to primates. You can work as a curator, education officer, or collection manager. Not to mention, there’s museum administration and exhibit development.

Wildlife Reserves and National Parks

Although this will require you to know about other species as well, jobs at wildlife reserves and national parks can be fun if you’re not interested in spending your day looking at fossils. As a specialized biological anthropologist, you can work as a guide, collection manager and in an endangered species captive breeding program. You’ll need to have a background in zoology and know more than just about mammalian, primate and vertebrate groups of species.

Forensic Science  

Using knowledge of anatomy and osteology, biological anthropologists can make identifications and forensic estimations about human remains. If you have the stomach for it, you can work as a coroner or medical office but you’ll need training in legal evidence and forensic science first.

Biological anthropology is incredibly vast and while it’s mainly concerned with the species’ physical aspects, it’s deeply connected to other fields of anthropology. When you combine research from other fields, you’ll see how it results in a clearer picture of our species and where our culture originated. Now that you’re interested, you can keep up with new discoveries and findings.

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