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Physical anthropology


Physical anthropology

Template:Anthropology collapsible

Biological anthropology (also known as bioanthropology[1] and physical anthropology) is a branch of anthropology that studies the physical development of the human species. It plays an important part in paleoanthropology (the study of human origins), bioarchaeology (the study of past populations), and in forensic anthropology (the analysis and identification of human remains for legal purposes). It draws upon human anthropometrics (body measurements), human genetics (molecular anthropology), human osteology (the study of bones) and includes neuroanthropology, the study of human brain evolution, and of culture as neurological adaptation to environment.

In two centuries biological anthropology has been involved in a range of controversies. The quest for human origins was accompanied by the evolution debate and various racial theories. The nature and nurture debate became a political battleground. There have been various attempts to correlate human physique with psychological traits such as intelligence, criminality and personality type, many of which were proved to be incorrect and are now obsolete.


The nomenclature of the field is not exact: the relevant subdivision of the American Anthropological Association is the Biological Anthropology Section while the principal professional organization is the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The term "biological anthropology" emerged with the rise of genetics and incorporates genetic markers as well as primate ethology.

  • Human behavioral ecology, the study of behavioral adaptations (foraging, reproduction, ontogeny) from the evolutionary and ecologic perspectives, (see behavioral ecology). Human adaptation, the study of human adaptive responses (physiologic, developmental, genetic) to environmental stresses and variation.
  • Human biology, an interdisciplinary field of biology, biological anthropology, nutrition and medicine, concentrates upon international, population-level perspectives on health, evolution, adaptation and population genetics.
  • Paleopathology, the study of disease in antiquity. This study focuses not only on pathogenic conditions observable in bones or mummified soft tissue, but also on nutritional disorders, variation in stature or the morphology of bones over time, evidence of physical trauma, or evidence of occupationally derived biomechanic stress.
  • Forensic anthropology, the application of osteology, paleopathology, archaeology, and other anthropological techniques for the identification of modern human remains or the reconstruction of events surrounding a person's death.


Scientific physical anthropology began in the 18th century with the study of racial classification.[2] In the 1830s and 1840s, physical anthropology was prominent in the debate about slavery, with the scientific, monogenist works of the British abolitionist James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848) opposing those of the American polygenist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851). The first prominent physical anthropologist, the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) of Göttingen, amassed a large collection of human skulls.

In the latter 19th century French physical anthropologists, led by Paul Broca (1824–1880), focused on craniometry while the German tradition, led by Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), emphasized the influence of environment and disease upon the human body. American thought evolved the “four-field approach”, skeletons, artefacts, language and culture (ways of life), based upon studying the remains of North American people.

In 1897 Columbia University appointed Franz Boas (1858–1942) as a physical anthropologist for his expertise in measuring schoolchildren and collecting Inuit skeletons. From his German education and training, Boas emphasized the mutability of the human form and minimized race (then a biology synonym) in favor of culture. Ales Hrdlicka (1869–1943), a physician, studied physical anthropology in France under Leonce Manouvrier before working at the Smithsonian Institution from 1902.

Earnest Hooton (1887–1954), a Classics PhD from the University of Wisconsin, entered anthropology as an Oxford Rhodes Scholar under R. R. Marett and the anatomist Arthur Keith. Harvard University hired Hooton in 1913: he trained most American physical anthropologists of the coming decades, beginning with Harry L. Shapiro and Carleton S. Coon, and struggled to differentiate physical anthropology from racism.[3] There was much intellectual continuity with Germans such as Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz and Erwin Baur.[4]

In 1951 Sherwood Washburn, a Hooton alumnus, introduced a "new physical anthropology."[5] He changed the focus from racial typology to concentrate upon the study of human evolution, moving away from classification towards evolutionary process. Anthropology expanded to comprehend paleoanthropology and primatology.[6]

Human biology

Human biology is an interdisciplinary academic field of biology, biological anthropology, nutrition and medicine which focuses on humans; it is closely related to primate biology, and a number of other fields.

Biomedical anthropology

Biomedical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology, predominantly found in US academic and public health settings, that incorporates perspectives from the biological and medical anthropology subfields. In contrast to much of medical anthropology, it does not generally take a critical approach to biomedicine and Western medicine. Instead, it seeks to improve medical practice and biomedical science through the holistic integration of cross-cultural or biocultural, behavioral, and epidemiological perspectives on health. As an academic discipline, biomedical anthropology is closely related to human biology.

Currently, the only accredited degree program in biomedical anthropology is at offer biomedical tracks within more traditional biological or biocultural anthropology programs.


Typology in anthropology is the categorization of the human species by physical traits that are readily observable from a distance, such as head shape, skin color, hair form, body build and stature. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists used a typological model to divide people from different ethnic regions into races, (e.g. the Negroid race, the Caucasoid race, the Mongoloid race, the Australoid race, and the Capoid race. This was the racial classification system as defined in 1962 by Carleton S. Coon).[8]

The typological model was built on the assumption that humans can be assigned to a race based on similar physical traits. However, the typological model in anthropology is now thoroughly discredited.[9] Current mainstream thinking is that the morphological traits are due to simple variations in specific regions, and are the effect of climatic selective pressures.[4] This debate is covered in more detail in the article on race.


Somatotypology is the study of somatotypes or constitutional types. The objective is to produce a classification system that enables an observer to make determinations of the susceptibiity of a person of a given type to physical or psychological diseases or disease generally. The Carus and Kretschmer typologies are examples as well as Sheldon's constitutional theory of personality.

Racial mapping

Racial Mapping is the use of cartography to identify and situate racial groups[10] using maps to highlight, perpetuate, and naturalize the differences of race through both literal and metaphorical means.[11][12] Mapmakers create a common knowledge by displaying specific data as representative of the real world, and construct racial identity by framing, situating, and defining what race is.[13][14]

As a result, there is a long tradition of cartography being used as a tool to support social Darwinism, which seeks to promote specific groups of people as superior to others.[10][15][16]

The basis for racial mapping, at least in the western world, goes back to the Hellenistic tradition of mapping, where exotic “other” people were purported to live in far-off lands.[10] These “others” were usually based upon the writings of Herodotus, and later Greek cartographers spatially situated these groups in their maps. The use of maps to identify "otherness" was also present Medieval Europe through the use of mappaemundi. These maps displayed “monstrous races” along the periphery to denote the separation between the settled (Europe) and the unknown.[17] While these old maps are originally seen as representation of Christian proselytizing influence, they also exude an ideal of European supremacy. European mapmakers continued this tradition into the colonial era, using the maps to replace indigenous ideas of identity and spatial distribution. These maps, and others, were used to legitimize European imperialism through the use of racial delineation. Europeans were bringing their supposedly superior race, and the knowledge that went with that, to the world through their empires, and those empires were situated along a spatial understanding made possible through maps.[13][14][16][18]

Racial ideology is not to be found entirely in maps of colonialization, it is also seen within the biopolitics of the early 19th century. There was a rise in the “population” as a unit of analysis, and a governmental concern with health and crime that led attempts to understand, and categorize, the population.[19][20][21] The effects of grouping individuals into populations and having identities for the population, as opposed to the individual, presents the ability of a government to categorize people based upon knowledge. Many times this knowledge, and the categorization was done using cartography.[20]

Following the end of World War I, many of Europe’s borders were redrawn, often influenced by racial and eugenic ideologies.[20] The decision behind this was that, “…territories remain stable and peace be guaranteed,”.[22] The AGS assisted in the redrawing of Europe's map through the project known as the Inquiry, and in doing so helped to determine what the territory and identities of peoples in Europe would be. Consequently, the redrawing of Europe’s map after World War I was directly influenced by concepts of racial purity.

See also

Notable biological anthropologists


Further reading

Main article: List of important publications in anthropology
  • Michael A. Little and Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, eds. Histories of American Physical Anthropology in the Twentieth Century, (Lexington Books; 2010); 259 pages; essays on the field from the late 19th to the late 20th century; topics include Sherwood L. Washburn (1911–2000) and the "new physical anthropology"
  • 10:34–40 2001
  • Modern Human Variation: Models of Classification

External links

  • American Association of Physical Anthropologists
  • British Association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists
  • Human Biology Association
  • Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology
  • reconstructions – Electronic articles published by the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.
  • The Internet Journal of Biological Anthropology-The Free Online Journal
  • Istituto Italiano di Antropologia
  • Journal of Anthropological Sciences – free full text review articles available
  • Mapping Transdisciplinarity in Anthropology pdf
  • Fundamental Theory of Human Sciences ppt
  • Human Biology Association
  • American Journal of Human Biology
  • Human Biology, The International Journal of Population Genetics and Anthropology
  • Economics and Human Biology
  • Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University
  • The Program in Human Biology at Stanford
  • Society for the Study of Human Biology Symposium Series
  • Scottish Qualifications Authority
  • Society for Nordish Physical Anthropology


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