Anthropology

The discipline of Anthropology is based on knowledge that culture impacts every aspect of human existence.  Anthropologists investigate this through a “holistic perspective.” They believe that the understanding of past and present societies, from their social structure, religion and language, sex and symbolisms contributes to the “big picture.”Although the first anthropology course taught in the United States did not occur until 1879, people have long been concerned with finding out about themselves and their origins (Haviland, 6). One of the first anthropologists was Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900). Cushing lived among the Zuni Indians for four years to gain a better understanding of the people regarded as "primitive" by European Americans (Haviland, 7).

Without the understanding of human life from an anthropological perspective, many other disciplines would be without a full-scale-view of people and their interactions with each other and with their respect - and in some cases - disrespect for their environment.
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Hall of Bulls, Lascaux (Dordogne) France. (Upper Paleolithic, c. 15,000-10,000 BCE)

Upper Paleolithic Cave Painting - The Great Hall of the Bulls Lascaux (Dordogne) France. (Upper Paleolithic, c. 15,000-10,000 BCE)

Caption: The intellectual capabilities of Upper Paleolithic peoples, whose skeletons differ in no significant way from our own, are reflected in the efficiency with which some of them hunted game far larger and more powerful than themselves, as well as in the sophistication of their art. The painting of animals like the ones shown here attests not only to the artist's technical skill but also to his or her knowledge of the animals' anatomy.

Source: Haviland, William A. Cultural Anthropology Ninth Edition Orlando, FL, 1999:89
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Today, anthropologists are spread across a wide spectrum of work fields and their specializations are divided into the four main branches. Physical or Biological Anthropology, Linguistics, Ethnology and Archaeology.

1. Physical or Biological Anthropology

Physical (or biological) anthropologists focus on humans as biological organisms, especially human evolution.  Through the analysis of human fossils and observation of living primates, physical anthropologists are interested in how we have become what we are today.  Primatologists study primates social patterns because they are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom.  Some famous Primatologists you may be aware of are Dian Fossey (1932-1985), who studied mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, and Dr. Jane Goodall (b. 1957) Dr. Goodall started the Jane Goodall Institute and she highly venerated for her groundbreaking studies on Chimpanzee behavior and ecology.

2. Linguistics

Linguistics is the scientific study of language.  Linguists are not required to know many languages or interpret them, they are concerned with what languages have in common.  In all 6,000 languages that exist in the world today (including dialects), none of them use more than fifty (50) different sounds.  As an example, the sound "ttt" in cat and "bbb" in bat are two of those sounds.  Linguists study languages as systems of sounds or gestures that are put together according to rules of grammar and syntax, which result in meanings that are intelligible to others. Although no other animal has developed a more complex communication system of symbolic gestures, other primates - especially apes - use language functions similar to humans (Haviland, 14).

3. Ethnology

An ethnologist's study is primarily on present cultures. Through this focus, the ethnologist must immerse themselves in a culture for a period of 6-18 months at a time. This is called participant observation. An ethnologist must observe their subjects based solely on how they truly live and not let their own culture influence their observations. Anthropologists call this cultural relativism.  During the immersion period, they observe the behavior, experiences of the members of the culture and how the subject culture is passed from one generation to the next, a process called enculturation. Members of the culture who assist the ethnographers are called informants. The ethnographer develops a close relationship with the informant who helps interpret the culture's day-to-day activities (Haviland, 15).

Ground-breaking anthropologist Margaret Meade (1901-1978) studied the effects of culture on adolescence in American Samoa. During Mead's generation it was a generally accepted idea that the biological changes were the root cause of adolescent "growing pains." What she found in her ethnographic fieldwork was astounding - Samoan adolescents did not feel angst against their parents and had mature views about their sexuality. She concluded that cultural conditions may contribute to stress to adolescents. Mead’s theory helped the scientific community understand the value of anthropology in better understanding other cultures, ourselves and our relationship to our social environment.

4. Archaeology

Perhaps the most widely known branch of anthropology, archaeology falls under the category of physical anthropology. It is the collection and preservation of artifacts of past and present cultures. Archaeologists study the remnants people have left behind, such as pottery, hunting tools, and other relics, some dating back 2.5 million years (Haviland, 12). Besides filling our world’s museums with priceless artifacts, archaeologists give humanity a valuable record of past civilizations.  They provide a record of the diversity of lives who have passed before us.

While many people associate anthropology solely with archaeology, forensic anthropology is a practical application of archaeology techniques. Forensic anthropologists are called upon to identify victims of disasters and murder cases. Many important details can be derived from remains with regard to the individual's health condition and other valuable information (Haviland, 9).
 

Anthropology Related News Articles:

WHY SHOULD ANTHROPOLOGY BE INTEGRATED IN SCHOOLS? - An article published by the American Anthhropological Association.

`Outrageous science' UC Berkeley's highly praised anthropology department turns 100 (2002)

Anthropologist survives Sept. 11, helps victims' families find closure

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