Anthropology is the study of the origin and development of human societies and cultures.
6 - 12+
Ancient Civilizations, Anthropology, Archaeology, Earth Science, Geography, Geology, Human Geography, Social Studies, Sociology, World History
Anthropology is the study of the origin and development of human societies and cultures. Culture is the learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods. Anthropologists study the characteristics of past and present human communities through a variety of techniques. In doing so, they investigate and describe how different peoples of our world lived throughout history.
Anthropologists aim to study and present their human subjects in a clear and unbiased way. They attempt to achieve this by observing subjects in their local environment. Anthropologists then describe interactions and customs, a process known as ethnography. By participating in the everyday life of their subjects, anthropologists can better understand and explain the purpose of local institutions, culture, and practices. This process is known as participant-observation.
As anthropologists study societies and cultures different from their own, they must evaluate their interpretations to make sure they aren’t biased. This bias is known as ethnocentrism, or the habit of viewing all groups as inferior to another, usually their own, cultural group.
Taken as a whole, these steps enable anthropologists to describe people through the people's own terms.
Subdisciplines of Anthropology
Anthropology’s diverse topics of study are generally categorized in four subdisciplines. A subdiscipline is a specialized field of study within a broader subject or discipline. Anthropologists specialize in cultural or social anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and archaeology. While subdisciplines can overlap and are not always seen by scholars as distinct, each tends to use different techniques and methods.
Cultural anthropology, also known as social anthropology, is the study of the learned behavior of groups of people in specific environments. Cultural anthropologists base their work in ethnography, a research method that uses field work and participant-observation to study individual cultures and customs.
Elizabeth Kapu'uwailani Lindsey is a National Geographic Fellow in anthropology. As a doctoral student, she documented rare and nearly lost traditions of the palu, Micronesian navigators who don’t use maps or instruments. Among the traditions she studied were the chants and practices of the Satawalese, a tiny cultural group native to a single coral atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Cultural anthropologists who analyze and compare different cultures are known as ethnologists. Ethnologists may observe how specific customs develop differently in different cultures and interpret why these differences exist.
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist. He spent more than three years in Latin America, collecting and studying plants that different indigenous groups use in their daily lives. His work compares how these groups understand and use plants as food, medicine, and in religious ceremonies.
Linguistic anthropology is the study of how language influences social life. Linguistic anthropologists say language provides people with the intellectual tools for thinking and acting in the world. Linguistic anthropologists focus on how language shapes societies and their social networks, cultural beliefs, and understanding of themselves and their environments.
To understand how people use language for social and cultural purposes, linguistic anthropologists closely document what people say as they engage in daily social activities. This documentation relies on participant-observation and other methods, including audiovisual recording and interviews with participants.
Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist, studies forms of communication among the Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal community in Australia. Boroditsky found that almost all daily activities and conversations were placed within the context of cardinal directions. For example, when greeting someone in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?” A response may be: “A long way to the south-southwest.” A person might warn another that “There is a snake near your northwest foot.” This language enables the Pormpuraaw to locate and navigate themselves in landscapes with extreme precision, but makes communication nearly impossible for those without an absolute knowledge of cardinal directions.
Linguistic anthropologists may document native languages that are in danger of extinction. The Enduring Voices Project at National Geographic aims to prevent language extinction by embarking on expeditions that create textual, visual, and auditory records of threatened languages. The project also assists indigenous communities in their efforts to revitalize and maintain their languages. Enduring Voices has documented the Chipaya language of Bolivia, the Yshyr Chamacoco language of Paraguay, and the Matugar Panau language of Papua New Guinea, among many others.
Biological anthropology, also known as physical anthropology, is the study of the evolution of human beings and their living and fossil relatives. Biological anthropology places human evolution within the context of human culture and behavior. This means biological anthropologists look at how physical developments, such as changes in our skeletal or genetic makeup, are interconnected with social and cultural behaviors throughout history.
To understand how humans evolved from earlier life forms, some biological anthropologists study primates, such as monkeys and apes. Primates are considered our closest living relatives. Analyzing the similarities and differences between human beings and the “great apes” helps biological anthropologists understand human evolution.
Jane Goodall, a primatologist, has studied wild chimpanzees in Tanzania for more than 40 years. By living with these primates for extended periods of time, Goodall discovered a number of similarities between humans and chimpanzees.
One of the most notable of Goodall’s discoveries was that chimpanzees use basic tools, such as sticks. Toolmaking is considered a key juncture in human evolution. Biological anthropologists link the evolution of the human hand, with a longer thumb and stronger gripping muscles, to our ancient ancestors’ focus on toolmaking.
Other biological anthropologists examine the skeletal remains of our human ancestors to see how we have adapted to different physical environments and social structures over time. This specialty is known as human paleontology, or paleoanthropology.
Zeresenay Alemseged, a National Geographic Explorer, examines hominid fossils found at the Busidima-Dikika anthropological site in Ethiopia. Alemseged’s work aims to prove that a wide diversity of early hominid species existed three million to four million years ago. Paleoanthropologists study why some hominid species were able to survive for thousands of years, while others were not.
Biological anthropology may focus on how the biological characteristics of living people are related to their social or cultural practices. The Ju/’hoansi, a foraging society of Namibia, for example, have developed unique physical characteristics in response to cold weather and a lack of high-calorie foods. A thick layer of fat protects vital organs of the chest and abdomen, and veins shrink at night. This reduces the Ju/’hoansi’s heat loss and keeps their core body temperature at normal levels.
Archaeology is the study of the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used. Archaeologists carefully uncover and examine these objects in order to interpret the experiences and activities of peoples and civilizations throughout history.
Archaeologists often focus their work on a specific period of history. Archaeologists may study prehistoric cultures—cultures that existed before the invention of writing. These studies are important because reconstructing a prehistoric culture’s way of life can only be done through interpreting the artifacts they left behind. For example, macaw eggshells, skeletal remains, and ceramic imagery recovered at archaeological sites in the United States Southwest suggest the important role macaws played as exotic trade items and objects of worship for prehistoric peoples in that area.
Other archaeologists may focus their studies on a specific culture or aspect of cultural life. Constanza Ceruti, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is a high-altitude archaeologist specializing in artifacts and features of the Incan Empire. Along with archaeological evidence, Ceruti analyzes historical sources and traditional Andean beliefs. These data help her reconstruct what ancient sites looked like, the symbolic meaning behind each artifact, and how ceremonies took place.
History of Anthropology
Throughout history, the study of anthropology has reflected our evolving relationships with other people and cultures. These relationships are deeply connected to political, economic, and social forces present at different points in history.
The study of history was an important aspect of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which focused on using reason and inquiry to understand and create just societies. Herodotus, a Greek historian, traveled through regions as far-flung as present-day Libya, Ukraine, Egypt, and Syria during the 5th century B.C.E. Herodotus traveled to these places to understand the origins of conflict between Greeks and Persians. Along with historical accounts, Herodotus described the customs and social structures of the peoples he visited. These detailed observations are considered one of the world’s first exercises in ethnography.
The establishment of exchange routes was also an important development in expanding an interest in societies and cultures. Zhang Qian was a diplomat who negotiated trade agreements and treaties between China and communities throughout Central Asia, for instance. Zhang’s diplomacy and interest in Central Asia helped spur the development of the Silk Road, one of history’s greatest networks for trade, communication, and exchange. The Silk Road provided a vital link between Asia, East Africa, and Eastern Europe for thousands of years.
Medieval scholars and explorers, who traveled the world to develop new trading partnerships, continued to keep accounts of cultures they encountered. Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, wrote the first detailed descriptions of Central Asia and China, where he traveled for 24 years. Polo’s writings greatly elaborated Europe’s early understandings of Asia, its peoples, and practices.
Ibn Battuta traveled much more extensively than Marco Polo. Battuta was a Moroccan scholar who regularly traveled throughout North Africa and the Middle East. His expeditions, as far east as India and China, and as far south as Kenya, are recorded in his memoir, the Rihla.
Many scholars argue that modern anthropology developed during the Age of Enlightenment, a cultural movement of 18th century Europe that focused on the power of reason to advance society and knowledge. Enlightenment scholars aimed to understand human behavior and society as phenomena that followed defined principles. This work was strongly influenced by the work of natural historians, such as Georges Buffon. Buffon studied humanity as a zoological species—a community of Homo sapiens was just one part of the flora and fauna of an area.
Europeans applied the principles of natural history to document the inhabitants of newly colonized territories and other indigenous cultures they came in contact with. Colonial scholars studied these cultures as “human primitives,” inferior to the advanced societies of Europe. These studies justified the colonial agenda by describing foreign territories and peoples as needing European reason and control. Today, we recognize these studies as racist.
Colonial thought deeply affected the work of 19th century anthropologists. They followed two main theories in their studies: evolutionism and diffusionism. Evolutionists argued that all societies develop in a predictable, universal sequence. Anthropologists who believed in evolutionism placed cultures within this sequence. They placed non-Eurocentric colonies into the “savagery” stage and only considered European powers to be in the “civilizations” stage. Evolutionists believed that all societies would reach the civilization stage when they adopted the traits of these powers. Conversely, they studied “savage” societies as a means of understanding the primitive origins of European civilizations.
Diffusionists believed all societies stemmed from a set of “culture circles” that spread, or diffused, their practices throughout the world. By analyzing and comparing the cultural traits of a society, diffusionists could determine from which culture circle that society derived. W.J. Perry, a British anthropologist, believed all aspects of world cultures—agriculture, domesticated animals, pottery, civilization itself—developed from a single culture circle: Egypt.
Diffusionists and evolutionists both argued that all cultures could be compared to one another. They also believed certain cultures (mostly their own) were superior to others.
These theories were sharply criticized by 20th-century anthropologists who strived to understand particular cultures in those cultures’ own terms, not in comparison to European traditions. The theory of cultural relativism, supported by pioneering German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, argued that one could only understand a person’s beliefs and behaviors in the context of his or her own culture.
To put societies in cultural context, anthropologists began to live in these societies for long periods of time. They used the tools of participant-observation and ethnography to understand and describe the social and cultural life of a group more fully. Turning away from comparing cultures and finding universal laws about human behavior, modern anthropologists describe particular cultures or societies at a given place and time.
Other anthropologists began to criticize the discipline’s focus on cultures from the developing world. These anthropologists turned to analyzing the practices of everyday life in the developed world. As a result, ethnographic work has been conducted on a wider variety of human societies, from university hierarchies to high-school sports teams to residents of retirement homes.
New technologies and emerging fields of study enable contemporary anthropologists to uncover and analyze more complex information about peoples and cultures. Archaeologists and biological anthropologists use CT scanners, which combine a series of X-ray views taken from different angles, to produce cross-sectional images of the bones and soft tissues inside human remains.
Zahi Hawass, a former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, has used CT scans on ancient Egyptian mummies to learn more about patterns of disease, health, and mortality in ancient Egypt. These scans revealed one mummy as an obese, 50-year-old woman who suffered from tooth decay. Hawass and his team were able to identify this mummy as Queen Hatshepsut, a major figure in Egyptian history, after finding one of her missing teeth in a ritual box inscribed with her name.
The field of genetics uses elements of anthropology and biology. Genetics is the study of how characteristics are passed down from one generation to the next. Geneticists study DNA, a chemical in every living cell of every organism. DNA studies suggest all human beings descend from a group of ancestors, some of whom began to migrate out of Central Africa about 60,000 years ago.
Anthropologists also apply their skills and tools to understand how humans create new social connections and cultural identities. Michael Wesch, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is studying how new media platforms and digital technologies, such as Facebook and YouTube, are changing how people communicate and relate to one another. As a “digital ethnographer,” Wesch’s findings about our relationships to new media are often presented as videos or interactive web experiences that incorporate hundreds of participant-observers. Wesch is one of many anthropologists expanding how we understand and navigate our digital environment and our approach to anthropological research.
One of the most famous and controversial anthropologists of the 20th century is Margaret Mead. Mead was an American scientist who gained popular and academic success following the publication of her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, in 1928.
Mead lived and interacted with the people of Tau, Samoa, for her research. She documented an open-minded society where young women and men regularly engaged in casual sex. This was troubling to many Westerners, who had much more conservative attitudes. However, Coming of Age in Samoa remains the most popular anthropology book ever published.
Since her death in 1978, anthropologists have questioned Margaret Meads’ methods. Some of her conclusions may have been more a product of the time in which she studied, rather than an unbiased look at a unique culture. Some of the women interviewed for Coming of Age in Samoa accuse Mead of coaxing them in what to say. Meads problematic methodology has put many of her anthropological conclusions into doubt.
Anthropology has dozens of specialties. Some sections listed by the American Anthropological Association are:
Zora Neale Hurston
The short stories and novels of Zora Neale Hurston are an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement among African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s. Hurston was also an important anthropologist.
Hurston graduated from Barnard College, where she was the only black student, before being awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and conducting field work throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, considered to be Hurston’s masterpiece, was written while she was conducting anthropological field work in Haiti.
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May 20, 2022
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