What is Paleoanthropology?

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To effectively study paleoanthropology, one must understand that it is a subdiscipline of anthropology and have a basic understanding of archaeology dating techniques, evolution of cultures, Darwinian thought, genetics, and primate behaviours.

The study of anthropology falls into four main fields:

  1. Sociocultural anthropology
  2. Linguistic anthropology
  3. Archaeology
  4. Physical anthropology

Although these disciplines are separate, they share common goals. All forms of anthropology focus on the following:

  • Diversity of human cultures observed in past and present.
  • Many scientific disciplines involved in study of human cultures.
    • Examples include: Psychology, biology, history, geography among others.
  • Anthropology holds a very central position in the world of science.
    • There is a long academic tradition in modern anthropology which is divided into four fields, as defined by Franz Boas (1858-1942), who is generally considered the father of the field.

Sociocultural anthropology/ethnology[edit]

This field can trace its roots to global colonial times, when European trade with other parts of the world and eventual political control of overseas territories offered scholars access to different cultures. Over the years, this field has expanded into urban studies, gender studies, ethnic studies and medical anthropology.

Linguistic anthropology[edit]

Franz Boas is considered to be the founder of modern anthropology.

This study of human speech and languages includes their structure, origins and diversity. It focuses on comparison between contemporary languages, identification of language families and past relationships between human groups. It looks at:

  • Relationship between language and culture
  • Use of language in perception of various cultural and natural phenomena
  • Process of language acquisition, a phenomenon that is uniquely human, as well as the cognitive, cultural, and biological aspects involved in the process.
  • Through historical linguistics we can trace the migration trails of large groups of people (be it initiated by choice, by natural disasters, by social and political pressures). In reverse, we can trace movement and establish the impact of the political, social and physical pressures, by looking at where and when the changes in linguistic usage occurred.


Is the study of past cultures. It uses very specific study methods, because of limitations of this subfield. It should be noted that recovery and analysis of material remains is only one window to reconstruct past human societies and behaviours. Examples include economic systems, religious beliefs, and social and political organization. Archaeological studies are based on:

  • Specific excavation techniques, stratigraphy, chronology
  • Animal bones, plant remains, human bones, stone tools, pottery, structures (architecture, pits, hearths).

Physical anthropology[edit]

Is the study of human biological variation within the framework of evolution, with a strong emphasis on the interaction between biology and culture. Physical anthropology has several subfields:

  • Paleoanthropology
  • Osteometry/osteology
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Primatology
  • Biological variation in living human populations
  • Bioarchaeology/paleopathology


As a subdiscipline of physical anthropology that focuses on the fossil record of humans and non-human primates. This field relies on the following:

Research Design
Understanding Human Evolution

Evolution of hominids from other primates starting around 8 million to 6 million years ago

Importance of physical anthropology

Evidence of hominid activity between 8 and 2.5 million years ago usually only consists of bone remains available for study. Because of this very incomplete picture of the time period from the fossil record, various aspects of physical anthropology (osteometry, functional anatomy, evolutionary framework) are essential to explain evolution during these first millions of years. Evolution during this time is considered as the result of natural forces only.

Importance of related disciplines

Paleoanthropologists need to be well-versed in other scientific disciplines and methods, including ecology, biology, anatomy, genetics, and primatology. Through several million years of evolution, humans eventually became a unique species. This process is similar to the evolution of other animals that are adapted to specific environments or "ecological niches". Animals adapted to niches usually play a specialized part in their ecosystem and rely on a specialized diet.

Humans are different in many ways from other animals. Since 2.5 million years ago, several breakthroughs have occurred in human evolution, including dietary habits, technological aptitude, and economic revolutions. Humans also showed signs of early migration to new ecological niches and developed new subsistence activities based on new stone tool technologies and the use of fire. Because of this, the concept of an ecological niche does not always apply to humans any more.


The following topics were covered:

  • Introduced field of physical anthropology;
  • Physical anthropology: study of human biology, non-human primates, and hominid fossil record;
  • Placed paleoanthropology within overall context of anthropological studies (along with cultural anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology);

Further modules in this series will focus on physical anthropology and be oriented toward understanding of the natural and cultural factors involved in the evolution of the first hominids.