A true anthropologist meticulously maps, photographs, measures, and removes all artifacts. Anthropologists don’t blow up temples, and certainly not to obtain only one artifact! The truth of the matter is that anthropology is not fraught with explosions, cannibalistic tribes or aliens. Rather, the field of anthropology is mostly concentrated on the scientific analyzation of material in order to answer specific questions.
Anthropologists strive to understand what it is that makes us humans human. And, this can be approached through a multitude of different lenses. Anthropologists observe all individuals that form our family order of Primates across the whole of our lineage. Looking at aspects of genetics to culture, there is a huge spectrum to which an anthropologist can observe. Due to the extent of what can be observed, anthropology is generally divided into three main subfields: Archaeology, Biological Anthropology & Cultural Anthropology. While each subfield focuses on a different set of skills and topics, all subfields hold to the same forms of researching standards. So, let us channel our internal Indiana Jones and uncover what is anthropology!
What is Archaeology?
Archaeologists strive to understand human culture by analyzing objects made by people. This is done by looking for objects that indicate human behavior. These objects, known as artifacts, can be anything people made or used. Even the keyboard I used to type this article and the mug my coffee is in could become artifacts, as could almost all of the things we humans interact with. At field sites, archaeologists carefully pull pottery shards, tools, building structures, burial items, food, etc. from the ground. These artifacts help archaeologists build models of what a culture once looked and acted like. And, while certain field sites do, in fact, hold exquisite buildings and stashes of gold coins, most often archaeologists find material remains in more mundane and humble locals, such as in trash pits. It could be said that archaeologists are the ‘trash pandas’ of the anthropology world!
Artifacts aid archaeologist to understand human culture. For example, American Southwestern pottery has altered greatly over time, reflecting the skill and technological advancement of the people who have produced it. Additionally, not all southwestern pottery shows the same design, material or color patterns, reflecting cultural differences in how and why the pottery was made and which specific group created it.
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What is a Biological Anthropologist?
I always loved watching the Disney film, Tarzan, as a child. I would dream of being Jane, stomping through a jungle forest and swinging on vines. Lucky enough, as I got older, I actually became a biological anthropologist, which is exactly what Jane and her father were. While I still haven’t found a handsome vine swinging man, I do study primate behavior.
Biological anthropology seeks to understand how the order primates, including humans, have been able to adapt to different environments and why. Observing both living and extinct primates/humans, biological anthropologists compare and contrast anatomy and behavior within the animal kingdom to understand human uniqueness and evolution. While there are many specializations within Biological Anthropology, most can be categorized under two tags- humans and primates. Human specializations in biological anthropology typically study human evolutionary history over the last 5 million years in order to investigate variations in human development and health, to better understand the mechanisms that underlay population differences we see today. Primate specializations in biological anthropology conduct similar studies only rather than looking at one specific species within the order primate, they observe any or all primate species.
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Who is a Cultural Anthropologist?
It could be said, perhaps, that cultural anthropologists are like the Little Mermaid, Ariel, who wished she could be something or someone else. By observing and collecting the social interactions that people create in their lives, cultural anthropologists aim to explore how people in different locations interact with the world around them. They want to know all aspects of society functions. Why do people think something is important? How and why do people interact with one another? These are some of the many questions cultural anthropologists ask. Cultural anthropologists often agree that the best way to understand the diverse peoples and cultures of our human world is to live among them, known as ethnographic research. In doing so, they attempt to understand the perspectives, practices, and social organization of these groups. So, like Ariel, striving to lose her fish tail and become human, cultural anthropologists, likewise, strive to be “where the people are”.
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