A Beginner’s Guide to the 4 Fields of Anthropology
Today’s post is about the 4 fields of Anthropology! In a previous post, I mentioned that I was holding a free webinar in celebration of World Anthropology Day 2021. This webinar was called, “A Beginner’s Guide to the 4 Fields of Anthropology.” In case you missed the webinar, I’ll be sharing the information and most of the slides in this post. If you would rather view the webinar recording, just click here.
A Beginner’s Guide to the 4 Fields of Anthropology
First, I’ll begin with an introduction. Then, I’ll be talking a little about each of the 4 fields of Anthropology. After that, I’ll let you know about the online courses I offer through Anthropology 4U. And, finally, I’ll answer some questions that webinar attendees submitted.
Let’s get started! My name is Keirsten, and I’m an Anthropologist. I have 2 Master’s degrees in Anthropology. You can see in the photos that I am also disabled.
My first Master’s degree is in Interdisciplinary History & Anthropology from Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington.
My second Master’s degree is in Medical Anthropology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the top 40 universities in the United States.
I also have worked as a Medical Anthropologist for the Cleveland Clinic, the #2 hospital in the world!
When people hear that I’m an Anthropologist, so many tell me they wish they could study Anthropology–but they don’t want to have to go to college to do that. That’s why I created Anthropology 4U, to teach online and in-person courses in all 4 fields of Anthropology. In addition to courses, I also teach webinars, like this one, through Anthropology 4U.
Let’s begin our study today with another question. What do you think Anthropology is? What is your definition of Anthropology? Here’s a simple definition of Anthropology that is easy to remember: Anthropology is the study of people. That’s it! That’s what Anthropology is. The study of humans.
The discipline of Anthropology is broken down into 4 fields:
- Cultural Anthropology (the study of human cultures around the world)
- Physical or Biological Anthropology (the study of the human body)
- Linguistic Anthropology (the study of human language)
- Archaeology (the study of what humans left behind, through excavation).
So, that’s what Anthropology is, and those are the 4 fields of Anthropology. I’ll go more in-depth into each of these 4 fields, and I’ll also talk about some real-world applications of each of the 4 fields. Alright, Let’s begin!
The 4 Fields of Anthropology
We’ll start with the field of Cultural Anthropology. So, as I mentioned earlier, Cultural Anthropology is the study of human cultures around the world. And when Anthropologists study different cultures, they study all aspects of the culture, so Cultural Anthropology involves many, many topics.
Cultural Anthropology: Topics
One topic is marriage. Cultural Anthropology studies the different forms of marriage around the world. So, when you get married, how many husbands or wives are you expected to have? Many of you might expect to have only one spouse. Well, in some cultures, like the Nuer of Sudan, a man marries two or more women. This is called polygyny. And in other cultures, like in a culture in Tibet, a woman marries two or more men, which is called polyandry. And there are other options for marriage, too.
Another topic is gender and sexuality. Did you know that some cultures have more than 2 genders, male and female? Many cultures have 3 genders, and a culture in Indonesia even has 5 genders!
Another topic is social inequality. There are 3 basic types of societies: egalitarian, ranked, and stratified. Egalitarian societies are those that have very little social inequality. In ranked societies, there is a certain number of high-ranking social positions. Stratified societies have a lot of inequality when it comes to wealth and power. And there is unequal access to resources like land, tools, and education.
Another topic is food. What food is your culture known for? Or what food symbolizes your culture? If you are from the United States, then you might have said pizza or food from McDonald’s.
Another topic is families and kinship, which involves who is in your family and who you are related to. Here’s an example. In the United States, people think they are related equally to their mother’s family and their father’s family. But in other parts of the world, things are different. For example, in some cultures, you become a member of only your father’s family.
Cultural Anthropology: Subfields
So those are some examples of topics that are part of Cultural Anthropology. There are also many subfields of Cultural Anthropology. Here are a few examples. There is economic anthropology, which studies the different economic systems found throughout the world. There is political anthropology, which studies political systems. And there is legal anthropology, which studies law in other cultures.
There is the anthropology of religion, which studies religion and culture, including things like sorcery and witchcraft. And there is urban anthropology, which is the study of cities, including things like globalization.
And there is the anthropology of art, which studies art and culture, including body art (like painting the body and tattoos), visual arts (like jewelry and pottery), and performance arts, like music, dance, and theater. Did you know that many cultures don’t even have a word for art? This is because art is so integrated into their lives that these people don’t see art as something separate.
And there is visual anthropology, which involves photography, film, and video. And there is medical anthropology, which is the study of health and illness around the world. This is what I specialize in. Medical anthropology asks things like, what do people do when they get sick? Do they self-treat at home with over-the-counter medications, or do they see a doctor, or do they pray, or what?
Cultural Anthropology: Real-World Applications
So, those are some of the subfields of Cultural Anthropology. Now, I’d like to talk a little about some real-world applications of Cultural Anthropology. There are many ways that Cultural Anthropology can be applied to the real world, and here are just a few examples.
Have you ever heard of GoGurt? GoGurt is yogurt in a plastic tube that you can squeeze and eat. It is an American product, but you may know it under a different name. Well, a Cultural Anthropologist’s insights created GoGurt! Susan Squires studied families and found out that mothers wanted their kids to have a healthy breakfast. But kids wanted something fun to eat. So, based on her research, General Mills created GoGurt!
Have you ever heard of Canon computer printers? They are a famous brand in the United States. The printer in the photo isn’t a Canon printer, it’s another brand, but they all look very similar. Anyway, people weren’t using the printers, so Canon hired an Anthropologist to find out why. The anthropologist studied people who bought the printers and made suggestions on how to get people to use them. As a result of the study, Canon designed their Canon Creative software.
Have you ever eaten snacks created by the Frito-Lay brand? An Anthropologist, Donna Romeo, works for the PepsiCo company in the Frito-Lay department. She studies people to understand their snacking habits and what kinds of snacks they want.
So those are some examples where cultural anthropology was applied to the real world. We’ve looked at the field of Cultural Anthropology, and some of its subfields, and some real-world applications.
Now, let’s move on to the next field of Anthropology, which is Physical Anthropology.
Physical Anthropology is also known as Biological Anthropology. I was taught using the term Physical Anthropology, so that’s what I use, but both terms mean the same thing.
Physical Anthropology: Topics
Physical Anthropology is the anthropological study of the human body. This includes a study of things like genetics, anatomy, the skeleton, adaptation to diseases, adaptations to the environment, growth, nutrition, human origins and evolution, human variation, primates, and lots 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.
Physical Anthropology: Subfields
There are many subfields within Physical Anthropology, including:
- Forensic Anthropology
- Molecular anthropology
- Nutritional Anthropology
- Human Biology
To explain some of these subfields, I’m going to give an example of how these subfields would be useful in studying a skeleton.
So, say there is a skeleton. In order to identify it as human, you need to know a lot about the human skeleton. This is the subfield of osteology, which is the study of the skeleton. You need to know a lot about our skeleton in order to study past humans who are in fossil form, and also to analyze humans who died more recently.
For example, here is a human bone. Take a guess at what it is.
So this is a femur, which is the bone in the upper part of your leg.
Let’s try another one. Here’s another bone. Take a guess at what it is.
So this is a kneecap, and the formal name for it is the patella.
And let’s do one more. Here’s another bone. Guess what it is.
This is a hard one. It looks a little like a butterfly, and it’s actually one of the bones in the skull, called the sphenoid.
Here’s where it sits in the head. Now let’s go back to the subfields of Physical Anthropology.
If the skeleton is an ancient human fossil, then you need the subfield of paleoanthropology, which studies human fossils and 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.
If you determine the skeleton is a human who died more recently, then you need the subfield of Forensic Anthropology. This 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.
One thing forensic anthropologists do is figure out if a skeleton is male or female. There are many factors involved in this, but one part of making this decision is looking at the pelvis. And here are two of them, and one is male and one is female. There is a view from the front and also a view from above for each one. So, which one do you think is female? Here’s a hint. Remember that females need to be able to push a baby through. Take a guess at which pelvis is female,
Well, if you said pelvis number 2 is female, then you are right. In the top 2 images, you can see an area circled in red. That area is much more open in the female and closed in the male. There is also something called the subpubic angle, which is shown in red on the bottom 2 images, and in females this angle is wide, and in males the angle is narrow. Back to the subfields again.
Say you have an ancient skeleton, and you want to find out how the person died, or if they suffered from any diseases. Then you need the subfield of paleopathology, which 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.
And what if the skeleton is part of an archaeological site? Then you need the subfield of bioarchaeology, which studies human remains and their archaeological context, to make interpretations about what the people 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.
And say there is a skeleton, and you want to learn more about it genetically. Then you need the subfield of molecular anthropology, which uses genetics to study both ancient and modern populations, too. It uses DNA to study the evolutionary relationships between humans and other primates, and the relationships between different human populations. For example, DNA from Neandertal skeletons has been recovered and is being analyzed by molecular anthropologists to learn more about them.
So, DNA looks like a twisted ladder, and the rungs of the ladder are made up of something called nucleotide bases. There are 4 bases, A, T, C, and G. A always connects to T, and C always connects to G.
So, if one side of the ladder is A, then the other connecting side is T. And if one side of the ladder is C, then the other connecting side is G.
So, if one side of the ladder goes A then C then T, then the other side would be T then G then A.
Now, say you have one side of the ladder that is C, T, A, what would the other side be? Take a guess.
If you said G, A, T, then you are right!
So, those are some subfields of Physical Anthropology and how they could be used to study a skeleton.
Now, let’s say that you want to use Physical Anthropology to learn more about living people. Well, there is the subfield of nutritional anthropology, which studies the relationships between food and nutrition, cultural practices, health, and disease in living people. It also looks at the relationships between culture, diet, and evolution.
And then there is the subfield of human biology. Human biology studies human variation and adaptation. Here’s an example. People who live at high elevations, like in Tibet and Peru, adapt to a life with less oxygen. And anthropologists specializing in human biology study how that’s possible. It turns out, these people have large lungs and chests and an enhanced blood circulation system.
So, those are some subfields of Physical Anthropology that study living people. And, finally, the last subfield is primatology, which is the study of non-human primates, like apes, monkeys, and prosimians. Why study other primates? Well, 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, I said that non-human primates include apes, monkeys, and prosimians. But can you identify each of these types of primates? Here’s a primate in the pic below. Would you guess it is an ape, monkey, or prosimian?
Well, if you said monkey, you are right.
Here’s another primate in the pic below. Is it an ape, monkey, or prosimian?
Well, if you said prosimian, you are right. Prosimians include lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers. This is a tarsier.
Last one. Here’s another primate. Is it an ape, monkey, or prosimian?
This was a hard one. So, if you said, ape, you are right. This is a chimpanzee, which is a type of ape. Apes include gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons, and siamangs.
Physical Anthropology: Real-World Applications
So, these are the subfields within the field of Physical Anthropology. These are all different aspects of studying the human body and human evolution. Now, I’d like to talk a little about some real-world applications of Physical Anthropology.
The most obvious application of Physical Anthropology is with the subfield of Forensic Anthropology. Forensic Anthropologists help law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and United States Department of Defense, by identifying the skeletons of people who have recently died. For example, Forensic Anthropologists assisted with the identification of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States.
Here’s another example. In the United States, there is something called NAGPRA, which stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA says that human remains of Native American ancestry must be returned to their Native descendants. But how do you identify if a set of human remains are of Native ancestry so that you can comply with the law? You hire a Physical Anthropologist.
Another application of Physical Anthropology is in anthropometry. Many industries, such as the automotive and aerospace industries, need information on the size, shape, and anatomy of the human body so they can build cars and planes or whatever. So, they hire a Physical Anthropologist to give them this kind of information.
So, that’s some information about the field of Physical Anthropology, and its subfields, and some real-world applications.
Now I’m going to move on and talk about the field of Linguistic Anthropology. As I mentioned before, this is the study of human language.
Linguistic Anthropology: Topics
So, I want to start off our exploration of Linguistic Anthropology with a little activity. First, how many sounds do you think the letter “p” makes in English?
Now, place a hand in front of your mouth, and say the words “pill” and “spill.” Go ahead and do it now. What happens? Well, you should feel a little puff of air when you say “pill,” but not when you say “spill.” Go ahead and try it again, and see if you can feel the puff of air in “pill.” If you listen carefully, you’ll discover that these are two different sounds.
So, actually, the letter “p” in English makes 2 different sounds, and perhaps you didn’t know that. The study of these sounds of language is called phonology. And phonology is part of the structure of language and is something that linguistic anthropology studies.
Now let’s look at the other kinds of language structure. So, say you have a sentence in English, like this one. “I walked to the store.” A Linguistic Anthropologist would look at the meaning of the sentence, and the words within it. This is called semantics.
And they would look at the structure of the sentence, which is called syntax. For example, how the sentence says “I walked to the store,” (which is in a format called subject-verb-object) instead of saying “to the store I walked” (which is in a format called object-subject-verb) like some other languages might say it.
And they would also look at how words are formed, which is called morphology, so like how the word “walked” is formed from the word “walk” and the ending “e-d.”
And a linguistic anthropologist would look at the sounds of the sentence, which I said is called phonology. Like how the word s-t-o-r-e is pronounced “store,” not “story” — the “e” is silent.
But Linguistic anthropology studies a lot more than just the structure of language. It also looks at things like the origin of language, the evolution of language, how languages are classified and related to each other, and how and why languages change, including the death of languages. It also studies how people learn languages, and language variation, which means varieties of a language, like dialects.
Also, linguistic anthropology studies the relationship between culture and language. This includes things like language and social class, language and gender, and language and ethnicity. I’ll give you some examples of what I mean.
So, first, here’s an example of language and social class. Take a look at these 2 sentences:
- “I ain’t got no money.”
- “I don’t have any money.”
Can you tell which one is more likely to be said by a member of the American lower class, rather than someone who is upper class? If you said sentence number 1, you’re right. That style of speaking is associated with being lower class in America. So, language can show you what social class someone is in.
Now, here’s an example of language and gender. Take a look at these 2 sentences.
- “I think the steak is delicious, don’t you?”
- “That was a damn good steak.”
Can you tell which one is more likely to be said by an American male, rather than a female? If you said sentence number 2, you’re right.
American men are more likely to swear, and more likely to use words like “fine,” “good,” or “great,” while American women are more likely to use words like “delightful” or “lovely.” Also, American women are more likely to say things at the end of a sentence, like “isn’t it?” or “wasn’t it?” or “don’t you think?” which are called tag questions. So for example, an American woman might say something like “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” And there are lots of other differences in how men and women talk, but we can’t get into it all here. So, as you can see, language can reveal a person’s gender.
Linguistic Anthropology: Subfields
Now, I’ll talk a little about the subfields of Linguistic Anthropology. There are 3 main subfields: descriptive linguistics, historic linguistics, and sociolinguistics. Descriptive linguistics involves describing languages and writing down spoken languages. Historic linguistics looks at things like how language changes over time. And finally, sociolinguistics studies the social and cultural context of language and looks at how language is affected by gender, class, age, and other factors.
Linguistic Anthropology: Real-World Applications
So, now you know a little about what Linguistic Anthropology involves. Now, I’d like to talk a little about some real-world applications.
One application is with language revitalization programs. Many indigenous languages around the world are endangered. These communities are at risk of losing their native language completely, since the elders are the only ones who are fluent in the language, and they don’t live forever. And language is very important in culture–for example, it is often central to people’s identity. So, many communities have chosen to create language revitalization programs. Linguistic Anthropologists can assist in the creation of these programs. Also, Linguistic Anthropologists can record the entire language so that it is all written down somewhere and preserved and so the language cannot be lost.
Another application of Linguistic Anthropology is with marketing. Companies need to choose brand names to market their products, and a Linguistic Anthropologist can help. The name of a product affects what people think about the product, so choosing the right name is important. Also, since business is international, you need to make sure that whatever you call your product does not mean something offensive in another language, or those people won’t buy your product.
Even if you make up a word for your product, you need to make sure the sounds mean what you want them to mean. Sounds have meanings, just like words have meanings. Here’s an example. So the pic shows two tables, a big one and a small one. And let’s say you need to give a name to each table, and your choices are “mil” and “mal,” which in English are just sounds — they’re not words. Which sound do you give to the big table, and which sound is for the small table?
If you said “mal” for the big table, and “mil” for the little table, you are like 80% of people in a language study. There is something about the sound “mal” that English speakers associate with something big, and there is something about the sound “mil” that is associated with something small. So, sounds have meanings, not just words! A Linguistic Anthropologist can work with marketers, to decide on a business name, or to make up a name that has sounds that mean what they want it to mean.
So, that’s some information about the field of Linguistic Anthropology, and some of the subfields and real-world applications. So that’s the end of talking about Linguistics.
Now, let’s move on to the last of the 4 fields of Anthropology, which is Archaeology.
As I mentioned earlier, Archaeology is the study of what humans left behind, through excavation, which means digging things up. The things that people left behind are called material culture. Material culture can include buildings, tools, weapons, pots, and many other things.
Two kinds of material culture are artifacts and features. Artifacts are things that have been made or modified by humans and are portable, like clay pots. Features are things that have been made or modified by humans but are NOT portable, like a wall.
So, now let’s see if you can tell the difference between an artifact and a feature. Here’s an image of some jewelry. Is that an artifact or a feature?
If you said artifact, you’re right.
Now here’s an image of a path. Is that an artifact or a feature?
If you said feature, you’re right.
Archaeologists study all past cultures, including those with written history (which is called historic archaeology) and those without written history (which is called prehistoric archaeology). We only have written evidence from past societies starting from about 3,000 B.C., which is about 5,000 years ago, so material remains are the only source of information about people before that point.
There are several specializations within Archaeology. Some archaeologists focus on certain time periods, such as the Paleolithic (which is before 10,000 years ago) or Classical Greece. Some archaeologists focus on certain geographical areas, such as Egypt or China.
Some specializations are not related to time or geography, such as environmental archaeology or underwater archaeology. Environmental archaeology studies how humans used plants and animals, while underwater archaeology focuses on material culture found underwater.
Other examples of specializations include bioarchaeology (which is the study of bones and other biological remains), geoarchaeology (which is geological science applied to archaeology), and archaeogenetics (which is using molecular genetics to study the past).
There is even something called experimental archaeology, where archaeologists test hypotheses by recreating things from the past. For example, some archaeologists create replicas of projectile points (what some people call “arrowheads”) to study how they are made and used.
Archaeologists interpret the evidence they find and try to reconstruct the past. Here’s an example. Say an archaeological site contains lots of bones from game animals and parts of weapons. It may be interpreted as a kill site, a place where game animals were killed.
Now you try interpreting. Say you found a bunch of blackened stones placed in a circle, and there is burnt material in the middle of the circle. What could this be evidence of?
If you said something like a fire pit or fireplace or hearth, you would be right.
So, archaeologists study the things they find, and those give clues to how life was in the past. For example, archaeologists can reconstruct the environment that people lived in by looking at things like plant remains. So, if you find the remains of a bunch of cactus plants, then you know the environment must have been warm and dry.
Here’s another example. Archaeologists can tell what people ate. One way is by looking at plant remains. For example, In a storage pit in England, they found over 60 pounds of charred plant remains, made up of barley and wheat and other things. You can also tell what people ate by looking at animal remains. For example, if there is a huge pile of empty clam shells in an archaeological site near the ocean, then you know people must have been eating them.
Your turn again. Say you found some jewelry made out of seashells in an archaeological site that was very far from the ocean. What might that be evidence of?
If you said something like this could be evidence of the people trading with other groups of people, then you are right.
Archaeology: Real-World Applications
Now I’d like to talk about some real-world applications of Archaeology.
One way archaeology has been applied to the real world is seen with Native American reservations and land claims. Data from Archaeology has been used to determine reservation boundaries for Native American groups in the United States. But this is not just happening in the United States, native people from all over the world have used archaeologists to provide evidence for their land claims.
Another application of archaeology is seen with cultural tourism. Archaeological sites are a big attraction for tourists–think of Stonehenge, Easter Island, and Machu Picchu. Knowledge from archaeology is used in developing archaeological tourist sites. Also, archaeology is used in developing the public education programs (such as museum exhibits), that go along with these tourist sites. Archaeology provides the information about the past and the artifacts to display in these exhibits.
In addition, archaeology is applied to the real world through CRM, or Cultural Resources Management. Artifacts and archaeological sites are valuable cultural resources and are worth saving. But, commercial development is ongoing, and human activities could damage the land containing these cultural resources. For example, construction projects, such as building roads and buildings, or putting in pipelines and powerlines, may damage an undiscovered archaeological site.
To stop this from happening, in the United States, there is something called the National Historic Preservation Act. Part of this act, called Section 106, says that if you want to build something, and you have federal funding, licenses, or permits, or it’s on federal land, you must first figure out if your project will affect any archaeological sites. If it does, then you either adjust your project plans, or you hire archaeologists to excavate the sites to save the cultural resources. So, basically, in the United States, archaeologists are needed for construction companies to comply with the laws.
So, that’s some information about the field of Archaeology, and some of the subfields and real-world applications.
My Anthropology Courses
Well, we’ve covered all 4 fields of Anthropology! Now I’m going to talk a little about my Anthropology courses and then I’ll answer any questions you have. So, you’ve just learned a little about Anthropology in this webinar. In case anyone is interested, you can learn more about Anthropology by taking one of my Anthropology 4U online courses.
You don’t need to know anything about Anthropology in order to take these courses, they are for beginners and I teach you everything you need to know! Just go to my website at Anthropology4U.com to check my current offerings and sign up. And check back again after a while, because I add new courses every couple of months. Eventually, there will be courses in all 4 fields of Anthropology.
Q & A
Now it’s time for questions about the 4 fields of Anthropology. Remember that I will answer the questions that were submitted ahead of time first. So, if I don’t get to your question, just contact me and I’d be happy to help!
You can email me at info@Anthropology4U.com, tweet me at Anthropology4U, or send me a Facebook or Instagram message through Anthropology 4U’s page. All the info is in the pic below.
Question #1: How are artists’ impressions of any fossil generated and verified? For example: How does an artist understand the possible facial structure merely by looking at a fossil?
Answer: This question has to do with facial reconstruction, which is when an artist looks at a skull, of either a recently deceased individual or a fossil, and reconstructs what the face looks like. So how does the artist know what the person looked like, just from looking at the skull?
Well, the tissues on the face are thin in some places and thick in other places. And scientists have come up with average measurements of the tissues at certain points all over the face. So you use these average measurements to reconstruct the face.
You first create a replica of the skull, so that you don’t damage the original fossil. Next, you try to estimate body weight and see if the person was thin or heavy or average. You consider things like sex, muscle markings, height, and how robust the skeleton is. In general, males are heavier than females, larger muscle markings on the bones mean a heavier weight, thicker more robust bones also mean a heavier weight, and taller people weigh more than shorter people.
Then you take the average facial thickness measurements I mentioned earlier and either add to them if the person is heavy, or subtract from them if the person is thin, or use the average measurements if the person is of average body build.
Once you have determined the appropriate tissue depths, you need to attach spacers to the skull. Spacers are made of 1/8th inch wooden dowels or pencil erasers that are cut to the different tissue lengths. Then they are glued onto the cast. Next, you place artificial eyes in the orbits. Then you take clay and apply it to the skull, making the thickness of the clay match the length of the spacers.
Then you create the nose, using a formula. Next, you create the mouth, based on where the canine teeth are located. Next, you put on the last layer of the face, which simulates the skin. Finally, you use a formula to create the ears, and add a wig for hair, with the color and hair type based on the possible ethnicity of the person.
So that is how artists know what a person looks like from just looking at the skull. It’s a mixture of science and formulas and art.
Question #2: Why are brow ridges so much of fascination? Did they serve any purpose?
Answer: Brow ridges are heavy bones over your eyes, and look like the image on the left.
One reason why brow ridges are important is because archaic humans had very distinctive brow ridges. So, this includes Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. Over time, this disappeared, and the forehead became more vertical, and so anthropologists want to know why these ancient humans had big brow ridges and why we don’t.
There are a few different theories about brow ridges. Some think that the brow ridges became smaller as the brain grew larger. But research on a 3D computer model of a fossil skull showed this wasn’t the reason. Others think that big brow ridges protected the face by distributing stress from the chewing muscles. But when researchers took away the ridge in a 3D computer model, it didn’t affect anything.
So some think maybe brow ridges had a social purpose, like how some other primates have facial swellings that are used for social displays and signaling. Some researchers suggest that it has to do with our eyebrows — by having a more vertical forehead, you can move eyebrows in all sorts of ways and express different emotions. These facial changes happened about the same time that a lot of social changes took place, like exchanging gifts and living in larger groups. So that’s why brow ridges are important, and those are some ideas about their purpose.
Question #3: Is linguistic anthropology of any relevance to the study of primate fossils? If yes, how?
Answer: I would say, yes, linguistic anthropology is relevant to the study of primate fossils. Here’s one example. An important topic in linguistic anthropology is when in our past language became possible. Basically, we don’t know yet. But, you can look at the fossils of primates to get some answers.
First, we had to be physically capable of language, both with our brain and our vocal tract. I’ll talk about the brain first. You can study the shape and imprint of the brain in fossil humans and compare them to other primates, and you can see things like when the neocortex part of the brain became complex, and also when certain areas of the brain involved in language began to appear.
For example, the Australopithecus brain (dated up to 1.8 million years ago) looks ape-like, while the Homo habilis brain (dated to 1.8 and 2 million years ago) looks more human-like. And, the presence of 2 key areas of the brain involved in language in the Homo habilis brain suggests they may have been capable of language 2 million years ago.
Now, I’ll talk a little about the vocal tract. Our vocal cords are in a different spot in the neck compared to other primates, and the shape of our vocal tract is different as well. Also, our tongue is more flexible than other primates’ tongues. All of this makes speech possible in us humans, but not in other primates.
The vocal tract is made out of muscles and cartilage, so it’s not found in fossil form, but some scientists have reconstructed some vocal tracts by studying the bottom of the skull and the lower jaw of fossils. The Australopithecine fossils seem to have vocal tracts that are more like apes. And Homo erectus fossils from 300,000 years ago have more modern human-looking vocal tracts. And, Homo sapiens fossils from 100,000 years ago show fully modern-human-looking vocal tracts. But Neandertals do not seem to have modern human-looking vocal tracts, so they might have been limited in what sounds they could make.
So, you can see how studying primate fossils is relevant to linguistic anthropology. By studying primate fossils, we can get information about the brain and vocal tract, and try to figure out when language became possible.
BONUS Question: This question was asked by an attendee but was not answered during the webinar (due to lack of time). Are humans still evolving? If yes, has there been any recent evidence of these evolutionary changes?
Answer: Yes! Humans are still evolving! Evolution is just a change in gene frequencies over time in a population. Some people pass on more genes than others, and so there are changes in the gene pool over time, which is the definition of evolution. There are several examples of recent evidence for human evolution, but I only have time to talk about 2 of them.
So, you might know that the normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But recent research has shown that the average normal temperature is now 97.9 degrees.
Why is this? well, there are a few theories on why this could have happened. One idea says that diseases in the 19th century would have caused chronic inflammation, which would make the internal body temperature higher. Now, thanks to things like modern medicine and vaccines, people don’t have to worry about a lot of these diseases. So, the body temperature went down.
Another idea is that many people live indoors now, and so we don’t have to worry as much about regulating our body temperature, so our temperature went down. Either way, our bodies are cooler now and this is an example of recent human evolution.
Here’s a second example of recent human evolution. The Dutch are currently the tallest people on Earth, but they weren’t always the tallest. For example, in the mid 18th century, Dutch soldiers were shorter than American soldiers. Over the past 150 years though, the Dutch have added 20 centimeters to the average height.
Why is this? Well, a study found that Dutch women were more likely to think tall men were attractive, and tall men had more children than short men. Also, tall Dutch women had more children than shorter women. So, all this combined meant that the Dutch population became taller over time, which is evidence for evolution.
Well, that’s all the questions we have time for today. Remember, if I didn’t get to your question, just email me at info at Anthropology4U dot com, tweet me at Anthropology4U, or send me a Facebook or Instagram message and I’d be happy to help you.
Now it’s time for this webinar to end. Thanks again everyone for coming, and I hope to see you in another Anthropology 4U webinar or online course sometime soon! Goodbye!
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