Physical and Biological Anthropology

Physical anthropology is considered to be the oldest branch of anthropology. Its scope considers man. first as a biological organism and secondarily as a social animal. The development of physical anthropology is closely linked with the theoretical developments in the fields of medicine and genetics. Among the developments in biological sciences that have made enormous contributions to the development of the scope of this discipline, the theory of organic evolution and the principles of genetics are significant. Many biologists are responsible for the development of this subject. Comte De Buffon, Paul Broca, John Frederick Bluemenbach, Samuel George Morton, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace are considered as the founders of this discipline.

Physical anthropology is also called as Biological anthropology. It is considered as the anthropological cbritemporary of biological sciences that deal with human beings. Because it studies human beings living in diverse cultures and examines the role of culture in the evolution of the species, physical anthropology is properly set apart from those disciplines that regard human bones and bodies in strictly biological terms. Since the last twenty-five years, in response to revolutionary changes in biological sciences, biological anthropology has undergone change in the complexity and variety of the problems it studies and in the sophistication of techniques it employs.

Although the use of specialized methodologies derived from a variety of biological sciences has created many highly technical sub fields within biological anthropology, the discipline remains primarily concerned with human evolution within the context of culture or the emergence of culture.

Main branches of Physical Anthropology

Three main branches of Physical Anthropology are:

  1. Paleontology
  2. Neontology
  3. Ethology

Paleontology

The etymological meaning of the word "Paleontology" means the science of old life. When translated in the context of anthropology, paleontology is the study of extinct primates and concerns itself with the evolution of man. It examines the most ancient human ancestors including the anthropoids, the humanity's nearest relatives, and reveals the foundations of human biological and cultural evolution. It makes use of the theoretical developments and the methodologies involved in other sciences like botany, zoology, chemistry etc.

Neontology

The etymological definition of "Neontology" means the science of modern or new life. In Anthropological parlance, Neontology is the branch of physical anthropology that studies the living primates. While dealing with the living primates, it examines the comparative anatomy, physiology and genetics of living primates, human variation and differentiation in terms of population genetics, molecular genetics, body shapes, adaptation to different environments and racial classification and other related aspects.

Ethology

Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior such as that of free ranging to confined monkeys and apes and combines that knowledge with theories about the development of languages, group life and capacity for cultural development.

All these three branches of physical anthropology contribute to the understanding of the human evolution, human variation and human culture and behavior. Biological anthropologists compare the scattered fossil evidence of human evolution, attempt to reconstruct the environments within which human beings evolved and try to develop explanations of the patterns of development they find. In studying the populations of living human beings, the biological anthropologist is primarily interested in observing the processes of evolution that are taking place within human populations at the present time. They are also interested in the examination of the biological similarities and differences between the various populations because this knowledge may shed light on historical relationships between the different population groups or the impact of a particular environment upon the ongoing evolution of the species.

In addition to these general questions about the relationships of human beings to other primates or about past and present human evolution, the physical anthropologist is deeply concerned with the question of the extent to which biological factors exert influence upon the nature, behavior, and potentialities of human individuals and populations. Although these questions are sometimes approached by means of attempts to draw a distinction between human traits that result from heredity and environment, the task of explaining the complex interplay between biological and cultural factors is one of the challenges facing all of the sub disciplines of anthropology.

One of the important areas of research in physical anthropology is the human, population biology. This sub-discipline studies the adaptations to differing environments and the hereditary characteristics of Eving populations ranging in size from regional stocks and races to local inbreeding groups such as religious castes. The physical anthropologist in contrast to the other biologists, who study man, is mainly concerned with human variation, sexual differences, growth patterns and physical and physiological differences between human .groups, current and past, and the geographical distribution of the human physical characteristics.

Physical anthropology is now in a period of rapid change. This branch of anthropology has close relationships with other fields of biology, especially genetics, anatomy, physiology, taxonomy, or classification. The field has also close connections with cultural anthropology, since man among all animals is preeminently a creature with a culture and can hardly be studied unless this fact is reckoned. Such factors like mating and inbreeding patterns, food resources and food habits, intentional modifications and mutilations of the body, and the history of migrations and pioneering settlements, since they are aspects of culture, are within the scope of cultural anthropology yet, since they affect the human physical form and racial history, they are also important for physical anthropology. On the other hand, the concern of physical anthropology with the history of human populations often yields results useful to other anthropologists who are interested in cultural history.

Classical & New Physical Anthropology

Initially physical anthropology was considered as a technique for taking carefully defined measurements, compute indices and other statistics. Irrespective of the objectives of the study, the methods of observation, measurement, and comparison were essentially same. Thus die prevailing approach was static with emphasis on taxonomy. The development of the theory was not known at that time and so was genetics. Thus for many years classical physical anthropology was considered nothing but anthropometries with the belief that with accurate metric values all the problems could be solved.

It was later realized that measurements and indices may certainly determine the degree of development and the extent of variability of a certain trait, but they do not reveal if on the basis of some traits all could be put in a single biological category. It was further realized that to understand the problems of evolution, race and constitution, background knowledge of a number of characteristics viz., cranial forms, pigmentation, somatic structure, growth process etc., seem to be essential. Therefore a reorientation of the methodology became necessary. Thus physical anthropology entered the analytical phase. The general approach gradually underwent a change. It was at this point that new physical anthropology started.

Washburn attempted to bring about certain differences between the classical and new physical anthropology. The field of interest and the final aim of both remained the same. Comprehension and interpretation of human evolution continued to be the main objectives. However, the difference in approach became obvious. In the past there was emphasis on classification and no attempt was made to interpret the phenomenon. It was realized that working on mere external variations was not sufficient. One must examine as to what do the observed differences mean and how are they related to other features. For example in order to understand the variation in size of the brow ridges, a series of measurements were taken on the nose. Now it is realized that other features like the size and the shape of the skull and the face, in fact influence the brow ridges.

The traditional descriptions cannot explain the reasons behind the formation of a particular character or trait. At best they explain their existence and circumstances. New physical anthropology invokes the concept of adaptation. However, even in the methodology of new physical anthropology, classification becomes the first step. This is followed by the problem and it's processing with the belief that without proper interpretation, data are meaningless.

In classical physical anthropology theory was not considered important though points for theoretical discussions did exist. The emphasis was on the collection of data and the description of facts. In recent years there has been a realization that facts alone cannot solve fundamental questions. The chief task of the anthropologist is to understand the nature and kind of adaptation and the operation of the selection process because evolution is considered to be the history of the genetic systems where changes are due to mutation and selection besides other factors. Evolution is also the sequence of effective behavior and therefore to understand it, living subjects must also be studied. While dealing with fossil Hominid remains, it must always be kept in mind that they were once living and adapted to their time and therefore must be studied in the context of their environment.

The traditional physical anthropology, for example, to describe the bone characteristics, lays more emphasis on the elaboration of measurements whereas new physical anthropology enriches the knowledge of the past explaining the bones in terms of their functional significance in the life process. It is important to note that understanding the process of the mechanism responsible for a specific trait is important and should be given due attention than to make a simple statement about its presence or absence. It necessitates the development of appropriate quantitative and descriptive methods. Another important implication is that now there is much more concrete interrelationship among different subdivisions of anthropology. Further, for a better understanding of process of evolution, this new orientation in physical anthropology needs to be complemented with the appreciation of history and mechanism of culture. This is because, today it is known that human migration and adaptation, marriage customs, population density, diseases etc. are increasingly influenced by the way of life.

Thus, in view of its growth and new orientation, physical anthropology continues to be a study of human evolution and biological variation. It is concerned with the sources of variation and the direction of change among individuals and groups, past and present. Genetic differences and environmental modifications provide the sources of variations. Physical anthropology thus may be viewed as an approach to human biology in its widest context with emphasis on humanity as whole. Since consideration of a cultural context is always basic to a proper appreciation and understanding of the problems of human evolution, physical anthropology is also concerned with the interaction of socio-cultural and other environmental factors.

Scope of Physical Anthropology

Physical anthropology, right from its inception, has been, concerned with the study of man's physical characters, their origin, evolution, and present state of development. Man in all his varieties, is the result of the effects of past as well as the present causes. How he came into being as a physical organism, how he developed his particular culture and the nature of conditions responsible for these should always be studied in relation to the environment. Both physical and cultural factors have played a role in the evolution of man and his differentiation, and both need to be included in the term environment. Defined in this perspective, physical anthropology is the comparative science of man as a physical organism in relation to his total environment, social, cultural, and physical.


The appreciation and evaluation of human variability and dealing with the factors that account for their current distribution have been the basic concerns of physical anthropology from the very beginning. Anthropometries, the basic technique of physical anthropology, has greatly contributed to this aspect. However, in recent years, with the Introduction of genetics, a new area of investigation has opened. Naturally there has been a spread of investigations using genetic methods in evaluating the detailed causes of individual variation and diversification of the varieties of man. Such studies are currently carried out under a special branch that helps to draw a reasonably reliable history of the origin and evolution of the human species and its varieties and attempts to understand the causes for human variation.

The appreciation and evaluation of human variability and dealing with the factors that account for their current distribution have been the basic concerns of physical anthropology from the very beginning. Anthropometries, the basic technique of physical anthropology, has greatly contributed to this aspect. However, in recent years, with the Introduction of genetics, a new area of investigation has opened. Naturally there has been a spread of investigations using genetic methods in evaluating the detailed causes of individual variation and diversification of the varieties of man. Such studies are currently carried out under a special branch that helps to draw a reasonably reliable history of the origin and evolution of the human species and its varieties and attempts to understand the causes for human variation.

Equally important is the study of the extinct primates who are ancestors to the man today. Such contributions constitute another branch in physical anthropology called Primate Paleontology. These studies naturally require knowledge on the pre-historic climatic conditions and changes and their effects on the ecology of primates. Such studies are done by Geo-ecology. Physical anthropologists study all these related phenomena while tracing the origin of man and his evolution in his current varieties under Paleoanthropology. It needs to be pointed out at this stage that a proper evaluation of the remains of fossil men in evolutionary perspective cannot be done without recourse to comparative anatomy including embryology or developmental anatomy and physiology of growth.

The study of existing varieties of man has been one of the basic concerns of physical anthropology. Such studies on one hand refer to the extent of human variation and on the other hand allow attempting at human taxonomy, which in the specific anthropological context is referred to as Raciology or the study of races. Since the term race has become polluted because of its political and cultural overtones, it has consequently led physical anthropology which has attempted to reexamine the meaning of this concept and other related terms in the light of modem knowledge and also restudy and analyze the varieties of man in order to evaluate the real significance of such differences for a proper interpretation and clear understanding.

The appreciation and evaluation of human variability and dealing with the factors that account for their current distribution have been the basic concerns of physical anthropology from the very beginning. Anthropometries, the basic technique of physical anthropology, has greatly contributed to this aspect. However, in recent years, with the Introduction of genetics, a new area of investigation has opened. Naturally there has been a spread of investigations using genetic methods in evaluating the detailed causes of individual variation and diversification of the varieties of man. Such studies are currently carried out under a special branch that helps to draw a reasonably reliable history of the origin and evolution of the human species and its varieties and attempts to understand the causes for human variation.

Equally important is the study of the extinct primates who are ancestors to the man today. Such contributions constitute another branch in physical anthropology called Primate Paleontology. These studies naturally require knowledge on the pre-historic climatic conditions and changes and their effects on the ecology of primates. Such studies are done by Geo-ecology. Physical anthropologists study all these related phenomena while tracing the origin of man and his evolution in his current varieties under Paleoanthropology. It needs to be pointed out at this stage that a proper evaluation of the remains of fossil men in evolutionary perspective cannot be done without recourse to comparative anatomy including embryology or developmental anatomy and physiology of growth.

The study of existing varieties of man has been one of the basic concerns of physical anthropology. Such studies on one hand refer to the extent of human variation and on the other hand allow attempting at human taxonomy, which in the specific anthropological context is referred to as Raciology or the study of races. Since the term race has become polluted because of its political and cultural overtones, it has consequently led physical anthropology which has attempted to reexamine the meaning of this concept and other related terms in the light of modem knowledge and also restudy and analyze the varieties of man in order to evaluate the real significance of such differences for a proper interpretation and clear understanding.

Ever since the introduction of genetics and its adoption in physical anthropology, the field of human genetics has undergone further differentiation. On one hand there has been an interest in the study of the patterns of inheritance of various body traits and on the other, a proper assessment of the distribution of such traits and their gene frequencies have' become necessary for evaluating the process of ongoing human differentiation. This particular interest is unique to physical anthropology as no other science studies normal humanvariations. At the same time there are cultural varieties of man and customs and traditions that differ from population to population, sometimes resulting into different systems of mating. The systems of mating as practiced in human populations are significant as they regulate, the flow of genes in a certain group. For students of physical anthropology interested in the study of evolutionary phenomenon it is therefore necessary to evaluate the inflow or outflow of genes that have evolutionary implications. All such, studies are conducted in the field of Human Population Genetics. Recent additions to this field are Serology and Dermatoglyphics. Current lines of investigations in this field may be briefly summarized as gene frequencies and their determination, study of mating systems in human populations and the affinities of human population.

The study of physical anthropology has also contributed towards the improvement of the population - Eugenics. Furthermore, the value of physical anthropology in the analysis of growth and development hardly needs any explanation. In recent years physical anthropology has done great service to dentistry, medicine, and industrial research. In fact, wherever human body or its parts need interpretations in terms of its form, function and dynamics of variability and the implications ofx the age process in terms of physical growth and development, the role of physical anthropology is gainfully utilized.

In the field of forensic sciences physical anthropology has made significant contributions. In forensic science, individual characterization involving determination of age and sex is important Physical anthropology helps in such assessments by utilizing its knowledge in the fields of osteology, osteometry, dermatoglyphics, serology and many other somatic and genetic characteristics and solves the problems of forensic science. Besides, the somatological knowledge can be applied in deciphering the constitutional types in relation to specific diseases or while making proper selections in the fields of sports, a specialization recently christened Kinanthropometry.

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Reynold Jay 5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

Whew--very extensive! Is there a test afterward? I was a science teacher and Paleontology was my main gig. I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and Useful.” I'm now your fan! RJ

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Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

What an awesome hub and the amount of information is fabulous! I love the layout of this hub - makes it easy to follow from one idea to the next. But overall, what I liked the most was the clear descriptions of the various branches of Anthropology. I had heard some of these terms but had no idea what they meant. Thank you for the information! Great hub + voted up!

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