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What is Archaeological Anthropology

Updated on September 7, 2012

Archaeological anthropology attempts to reconstruct the cultural forms of the past and to trace their growth and development in time. In this, historians, cultural historians and archaeologists share the same objective. History, in the sense of written history, is based upon written documents describing aspects of life in former times. Unfortunately such written documents cover only the last five thousand years and only those cultures that possessed writing. Very often, surviving written documents give an inadequate picture of former cultures and it is necessary to supplement written history with archaeology.

In most cases the archaeologist must reconstruct the cultures of the past from material remains alone. Tracing the clues provided by the smoke blackened walls of caves, unusual variations in the soil, or pieces of stone, the archaeologist locates the campsites, villages or towns of bygone cultures. Highly specialized techniques are used to remove carefully, layer by layer, the various traces left behind by unknown peoples. Skeletons of the ancient dead are found along with the ornaments they once wore and the tools they once carried. The archaeologist finds ancient house floors, bits of pottery and objects of stone and imperishable metals only that which does not rot or wash away.

From bits of bone and pollen hidden in the dirt, the archaeological anthropologist, with the assistance of biologists and other natural scientists, can reconstruct the natural environment and reach conclusions about the foods'consumed by ancient peoples. From the charcoal left behind ancient fires, or from other organic materials, the archaeologist can obtain estimates of the time period during which people lived at the site being excavated. By examining human bones found in the site, guesses can be made about the number of people present, their age and sex, and the causes of their deaths. Pottery figurines and other works of art may provide information about the appearances of the people, their dress, and sometimes their social life. Grains of wheat pressed into baked clay or surviving as the carbonized remnants of a burnt dinner may suggest the presence of agriculture.

Archaeologists have discovered the tool like objects used by earliest human beings and have traced the movement of humanity across the world. The archaeological record shows us the human occupation of new environments and the slow development within each of specialized techniques of adaptation and survival. As the archaeologist reconstructs the history of each of the regions of the world, evidence accumulates concerning patterns of change and stability in human affairs. Working with the socio-cultural anthropologists, the archeologist considers the various factors that contribute to the development of new inventions, to their diffusion across cultural boundaries and to their impact upon the cultures into which they are introduced.

Old And New Archaeological Anthropology

Like physical anthropology, archaeological anthropology also has its old and new forms. The old or early modem archeological anthropology existed prior to 1960 and it defined itself as a study of all extinct cultures of human species. However, it could only deal with a few extinct cultures. Above all, it was not interpretive. It gave only description and chronologies of the limited number of extinct cultures it had studied. In the early 1960s, new or contemporary archaeological anthropology emerged. It emphasized cultural evolutionary perspective, general systems approach and dependence on logico-deductive reasoning. Evolutionary perspective stressed on the great role of technology and economy in generating-progress and consequent evolution of culture. Systems approach placed great emphasis on inter-relations of environment, ecology and local and regional populations. Logico-deductive reasoning utilized the present primitive cultures to understand the extinct ancient cultures.

The new or contemporary archaeological anthropology reconstructs the cultures in the past by excavating and studying the material remains of former human societies. It is the study of past societies and cultures through the material remains that have been left behind by ancient humans. The material remains such as pottery, tools etc., are the reflections of what life was like at some period in the past. The descriptions of the present day primitive cultures are also utilized to know how extinct societies and cultures were similar to those of the contemporary primitive societies an emerging approach called ethno-archeology.

Branches in Archaeological Anthropology

There are four branches in Archaeological Anthropology, they are:

  1. Pre-Historic Archaeological Anthropology
  2. Text-Aided Archaeological Anthropology
  3. Text-Free Archaeological Anthropology
  4. Salvage Archaeological Anthropology

Pre-Historic Archaeological Anthropology

It is also know as Pre-historic cultural history and Synthetic archaeology. It reconstructs the origin, evolution, and diffusion of culture in the period between the first appearance of humans and the development of writing.

Text-Aided Archaeological Anthropology

It is also called as Classical archeology. It deals with the reconstruction of ancient civilizations that have developed the art of writing. It utilizes written accounts and textual descriptions as source material and guide to open up more and more forgotten centers of ancient civilizations.

Text-Free Archaeological Anthropology

This includes Old world archaeology and new world archaeology. It is concerned with non-literate people. For text free archaeology no texts or written materials will be available to guide their excavations and what was really obtained through actual digging.

Salvage Archaeological Anthropology

It Is an effort on the part of archaeological anthropologists to obtain as much information as possible from the sites threatened by destruction as a result of either natural causes or human activity.

All branches of archaeological anthropology together construct the cultures of extinct humans. They describe and explain the cultures of human species from the emergence of humanity in the prehistoric period until the advent of human civilization at the dawn of historical period. They show how human species, after its evolution, acquired culture and how that culture expanded, progressed and evolved.


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    • profile image


      10 months ago

      thanks for this article

    • profile image

      pushpendra from delhi university 

      2 years ago

      waw that's good article about a.anthro.

      how to we define it.m so happy

    • Astralrose profile image


      3 years ago from India

      This hub helps me a lot in writing my assignment in archaeological anthropology. Thank you!

    • Priya Vidhuri profile image

      Priya Vidhuri 

      4 years ago

      good. thankz for the information.

    • JasminRace profile image


      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Really nice article, enjoyed reading it very much

    • profile image

      apoorva singh 

      6 years ago

      i bunked my classes of anthro and so i did not have notes to read for the exams but this not only saved me but also gave good marks

    • Rusti Mccollum profile image

      Ruth McCollum 

      6 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon

      You wrote that so well, and easy to understand.You have to be really smart to understand this topic.You have written the best hub on this,easy to I ever read. great information. read.You helped me reading your hub. Thankyou. When get more time, today will try to be back to read more. Voted up! Very interesting


    • B. A. Williams profile image

      B. A. Williams 

      6 years ago from USA

      Very interesting article, would love to read more on what they found in their studies.

    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • jellygator profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      Although it may seem sort of obvious now that I think about it, I hadn't ever considered that the different means of reconstructing history are so disparate and individually identified. Interesting to know. Voted up and interesting.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for that interesting article. It is amazing to see how the past can be uncovered.


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