What is Physical Anthropology?

In a previous blog post, you learned about the 4 fields of Anthropology: Cultural Anthropology, Physical Anthropology, Archaeology, and Linguistics. In this blog post, we will be exploring the field of Physical Anthropology.

Physical Anthropology

Physical Anthropology is also known as Biological Anthropology, so if you see the words, “Biological Anthropology,” somewhere, don’t worry, it’s the same thing as Physical Anthropology. Physical Anthropology is an older term, and Biological Anthropology is a newer term. I was taught under the term, “Physical Anthropology,” so that’s what I use. 

Physical Anthropology is the study of the human body. This includes a study of genetics, anatomy, the skeleton, adaptation to diseases, adaptations to the environment, growth, nutrition, human origins and evolution, human variation, primates, and more. That seems like a lot, right? 

But it all boils down to 4 general topics: First, genetics & evolution. Second, human adaptation and variation. Third, the primates. And fourth, the human fossil record. 

There are many subfields within Physical Anthropology, including: 

  • Osteology
  • Paleopathology
  • Bioarchaeology
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Paleoanthropology
  • Molecular anthropology
  • Nutritional Anthropology
  • Human Biology
  • Primatology

Here’s a brief description of what each of these subfields involves.

Physical Anthropology. Image of a human skull against a black background.

Osteology

Osteology is the study of the skeleton. Knowing a lot about our skeleton is needed to study past humans that are in fossil form, and to analyze humans who died more recently.

Physical Anthropology. Image of King Tut.

Paleopathology

Paleopathology is the study of disease and trauma in ancient skeletons. For example, paleopathologists studied the remains of “King Tut,” an ancient Egyptian pharaoh to see why he died and what illness and trauma he had. He had a severe knee fracture and malaria, among other problems.

Physical Anthropology. Image of 2 human skeletons being excavated.

Bioarchaeology

Bioarchaeology studies human remains and their archaeological context to make interpretations about what they ate, their health, their social status, and more. For example, bioarchaeologists studied a man frozen in the Alps, known as the “Iceman.” Analysis showed that he was 5,300 years old. He had an arrow in his left shoulder, osteoporosis, and multiple tattoos.

Physical Anthropology. Image of a partial human skull with a large hole in the forehead from trauma.

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology is a more well-known subfield, thanks to the American TV show “Bones” which featured a forensic anthropologist. Forensic anthropologists identify human remains and analyze skeletons for the police and other law enforcement agencies. They even helped identify victims of the September 11th terrorist attack in the United States. 

Physical Anthropology. Image of human evolution, from crawling on all 4s to standing upright.

Paleoanthropology

Paleoanthropology studies human evolution. For example, paleoanthropologists studied a skeleton named “Lucy” which has been found to be 3.2 million years old! Lucy walked on two legs, but had a much smaller brain than humans, and she probably spent time both in the trees and on the ground. She is considered a transitional species between humans and earlier primates. 

Image of 3 strands of DNA in the double helix form, shown in light blue against a dark blue background.

Molecular Anthropology

Molecular Anthropology uses genetics to study ancient and modern populations. It uses DNA to study the evolutionary relationships between humans and other primates, and the relationships between different human populations. For example, DNA from Neanderthals has been recovered and is being analyzed by molecular anthropologists to learn more about them.

Image of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Nutritional Anthropology

Nutritional Anthropology studies the relationships between food and nutrition, cultural practices, health, and disease in living people. It also looks at the relationship between culture, diet, and evolution.

Image of a rocky mountain peak covered in snow.

Human Biology

Human biology studies human variation and adaptation. For example, these anthropologists study how people who live at high elevations (like in Tibet and Peru) adapt to a life with less oxygen. It turns out, these people have large lungs and chest and an enhanced blood circulation system.

Physical Anthropology. Image of a gorilla mother and baby.

Primatology

Primatology is the study of non-human primates, like apes, monkeys, and prosimians. Anthropologists study the genetics, anatomy, physiology, and behavior of our closest living relatives to give us a better understanding of ourselves. You may have heard of Jane Goodall, an Anthropologist who studies wild chimpanzees, or Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas. Did you know that mountain gorillas have families and they mourn the death of family members? They also play and tickle each other just like humans do! 

So, these are the subfields within the field of Physical Anthropology. These are all different aspects of studying the human body and human evolution. 

Want to Learn More about Physical Anthropology?

Want to learn more about Physical Anthropology? Just take my newest Udemy course, “Exploring Genetics & Evolution Through Physical Anthropology: Anthropology 4U,” coming soon!

Thanks for reading!

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