Defining 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.

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 Anthropology in the United States of America. 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.
  • Human beings is all of their biological, social, and cultural complexity.
  • Many other disciplines in the social sciences, natural sciences, and even humanities are involved in study of human cultures.
    • Examples include: Psychology, geography, sociology, political science, economics, biology, genetics, history and even art and literature.


Sociocultural anthropology/ethnology[edit]

This field can trace its roots to processes of European colonization and globalization, when European trade with other parts of the world and eventual political control of overseas territories offered scholars access to different cultures. Anthropology was the scientific discipline that searches to understand human diversity, both culturally and biologically. Originally anthropology focused on understanding groups of people then considered "primitive" or "simple" whereas sociology focused on modern urban societies in Europe and North America although more recently cultural anthropology looks at all cultures around the world, including those in developed countries. Over the years, sociocultural anthropology has influenced other disciplines like urban studies, gender studies, ethnic studies and has developed a number of sub-disciplines like medical anthropology, political anthropology, environmental anthropology, applied anthropology, psychological anthropology, economic anthropology and others have developed.

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.

Archaeology[edit]

Is the study of past cultures through an analysis of artifacts, or materials left behind gathered through excavation. This is in contrast to history, which studies past cultures though an analysis of written records left behind. Archaeology can thus examine the past of cultures or social classes that had no written history. Historical archaeology can be informed by historical information although the different methods of gathering information mean that historical and archaeologists are often asking and answering very different kinds of questions. It should be noted that recovery and analysis of material remains is only one window to reconstruct past human societies including their economic systems, religious beliefs, and social and political organization. Archaeological studies are based on:

  • A specific methodology to recover material remains including excavation techniques, stratigraphy, chronology, and dating techniques
  • 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

Paleoanthropology[edit]

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

Understanding Human Evolution

Evolution of hominids from other primates starting around 8 million to 6 million years ago. This information is gained from fossil record of primates, genetics analysis of humans and other surviving primate species, and the history of changing climate and environments in which these species evolved.

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.

Summary[edit]

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.