So…I mean…What IS Anthropology, Anyway?

I get it a lot. Not directly. But so often, people say things about my field and it makes me want to launch into a 45 minute lecture about exactly what anthropology is. If you’re an anthropologist, or have a background in anthropology that extends beyond seeing Indiana Jones, you probably know what I’m talking about.

If you know anthropology, you’re probably not going to be seeing anything new here. You might get a kick out of it. But really this is meant to be informative for someone who doesn’t know much about the science and are maybe interested, this might be a worthwhile read.

My favorite example was when I was at a dinner following a rehearsal for the wedding of a (two) very good friend/s. I’ve known my friend since…I think 6th or 7th grade. His wife is Filipina. I was leaving for field school shortly after the wedding, so there was some conversation about it. He describes his (then soon-to-be) father in law as “like…from the jungle Filipino), and he was curious about my field, what I’m studying, and what I was going to be up to in Kenya.

So…I don’t know this guy very well. I know he’s from a not-exactly rural area of the Philippines, and beyond that I am completely clueless as to his background regarding beliefs. So I am thinking for a second about how to frame my response so as not to offend him or start some kind of “debate” about creationism or something at a wedding rehearsal dinner.

My friend fields the question. And says, “It’s like archaeology, only not dinosaurs.”


I actually decided to leave it there. Because it IS like archaeology. And it ISN’T dinosaurs.

You see, my particular subfield within anthropology is paleoanthropology. Paleo referring to the deep, deep antiquity. Anthro referring to humans. Logy referring to the study of the aforementioned prefixes. Paleoanthropology is the study of the biological origins of humans, their closest ancestors and the emergence of culture. Paleoanthropologists will study early modern humans, Neandertals, cave art and stone tools. But we will also study the fauna associated with our earliest ancestors as well as modern and extinct primates in order to glean insight into what our ancestors were like and/or up against.

So. It’s like archaeology. And it isn’t dinosaurs.

If you change his emphasis a bit, and maybe change “but” to “and,” it’s not a bad synopsis of what I plan on being up to with my life. So I left it, and his father in law was amazed, and definitely considered it a satisfactory answer. And really, what it conjured up in his mind was probably about the same as my answer would have conjured up.

I’ve gotten it about all sorts of things. I’m primarily into biological anthropology. So my social science friends think it’s a “hard” science. Meaning dealing with stuff that’s just there. Bones and rocks and stuff that isn’t really as interpretive as, say, the work of a social worker who has to interpret and respond to dynamic conditions in a variety of situations in the lives of the people they work with…all of which are affected by countless conditions in the individuals’ past and present.

But…that’s similar to the work of cultural anthropology, except that cultural anthropologists aren’t necessarily looking to treat anything. No, I’m not going to start discussing ethics here. Maybe somewhere else on this blog, but not today.

So anyway. There are a lot of conceptions and misconceptions of what anthropology is, and what anthropologists do. Another good friend of mine, once declaring anthropology as a major, described it to me as “the study of stuff.” I like that one.

But yeah. Here–in response to the confusion I’ve encountered and any confusion y’all might have and that I or you may encounter–I’m gonna discuss exactly what anthropology is.

Franz Boas is considered the father of American anthropology. His work in the early 19th century on immigrant populations in New York led him to reject the concept of race as a biological reality, and instead he insisted that it was a cultural construction. That was 100+ years ago. So anthropology is awesome. That much we’ve established. I’m not going to get too too into him (or any other names, really), but you can’t mention anthropology without mentioning him. Because he helped to develop the four-field approach we adhere to today.

Those four fields are: biological (physical) anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology. Now…there is often a fifth field talked about nowadays. Applied anthropology. I don’t really care for this as I don’t see it as a “fifth” field. Rather, I feel that anthropology cannot be strictly theoretical studies. You can’t just sit around in a classroom and talk about all this stuff and expect to be any good at applying it. In any class, applied projects need to be run. You can have a course called “Applied Anthropology” in which students develop and run projects within their respective subfields of interest. But really, that’s not a separate subfield. It’s part of what I feel the curricula should include in the first place and it bothers me on some level that it’s been sometimes neglected.


I have this funny view on the beginnings of anthropology. It started before anybody knew they were doing it, really. Because you start doing stuff and then realize you’re getting kind of interested in something. If you’re an artist, you probably drew as a kid. Your parents thought it was great and encouraged you. Or whatever. Maybe your parents sucked and you got lost in your art. Whatever the case, you doodled and it grew from there.

You didn’t wake up one day and go buy a 3 ton block of marble and stab at it with a steak knife, then go to home depot for a wood chisel because they’re cheaper than artist stone working tools.

You realized that you had a knack and an interest in something you stumbled upon, and you started organizing yourself cognitively, and organizing your life accordingly.

Expand that concept to a population’s interest in cultures and other people. And there you have the development of anthropology.

I can pare it down to this.

Europeans started leaving Europe and found a lot of people that the bible didn’t mention. Somewhere along the lines, amidst enslaving, raping and murdering them, they became honestly curious. They came up with all sorts of stuff that “we” didn’t have. Different buildings with different kinds of doorways and windows. Different languages. Different boats. Different utensils for eating. Different clothing. Different gods. They came up with different answers to the same questions. And these answers suited them just as well as ours suit us.

Well. Kind of. Really the European colonists didn’t like their answers to the same questions so they did all sorts of stuff like burning them alive, garroting them, stabbing them to death and other wholesome activities while destroying their texts and monuments.

But. That curiosity, to me, is where anthropology started. All science begins with curiosity. And really that’s what all science can be reduced to.

From that curiosity were born the four fields of anthropology.

The first is Cultural anthropology.

Cultural anthropologists (called Social anthropology in Britain) study…culture. Culture is funny. We know what it is, we can all give a definition of it, but it’s kind of a big and specific concept that remains somehow vague enough to incorporate..well…anything people ever think of. Biology sees a culture as a glob of cells and shit in a petri dish. Obviously I don’t mean that.

Culture, as in human culture, is the integrated pattern of knowledge, belief and behavior, dependent upon the capacity for learning and transmitting information intergenerationally.

Culture is  manifest in anything humans observe and interact with. Culture is the letters I’m using to communicate. It’s the kinds of music I listen to and the instruments it is played on/with. It’s my accent. It’s the tone of my voice when I’m angry or sad or happy. It’s how I use my hands when I talk. It’s the style of the frames of my glasses. It’s reading text left to right, right to left or top to bottom.

It’s what I find funny and why. It’s the distance I keep from you when we are talking face to face. It’s whether I hug you, shake your hand or kiss your cheek when I see you.

And it’s also the design of the house I live in, and even the doorways in the house. It’s the design of my bookshelves. It’s the sweetness of my coffee. It’s whether I want sweet or savory sauce on my chicken.

Really. Culture is everywhere. If you take any one thing, you can examine it anthropologically and discuss the cultural influence that went into its design. and how that influence affects the people that encounter it. It seems so basic but it’s so ever present that it can become difficult to recognize.

This is why, when my friend called anthropology “the study of stuff” I accepted that as accurate. It is. The style of pillows in America is an aspect of culture.

And it gets a lot deeper. I’m not going to get into it now. But as concepts get broader, and there is overlap, that can potentially be an aspect of shared culture, even before two existing cultures became aware of each other. Why? How?

Well, because in deep antiquity, humans were a small bunch. Just a few thousand people maybe. As groups split and went separate ways, they took the culture they shared with them. From there, those split groups went on to develop new cultural bits and pieces that fit on top of and within their existing frame work. Those overarching categories are potentially due to a shared cultural ancestry in deep time.

With no conscious knowledge of another group of people, you may be doing something very similar because long ago, your ancestors lived together.


That brings me to the next subfield. Archaeology.

My friend described anthropology as the study of stuff. Archaeology has been described as the study of garbage. Really. There have been archaeological excavations on landfills. Modern landfills. And you can learn a lot about a population by its garbage.

Archaeologists will often find middens. A midden is a trash heap. But everything goes there. Broken pottery, food scraps, old clothing, writing utensils no longer needed or functional. Ashes from cooking dinner.

Trash is a concentrated snapshot of everything a group is up to. And it’s so concentrated that when a group is gone, it’s extremely likely to remain. Often times, middens are found before the remains of the buildings the people actually lived in. Especially if the group was nomadic or lived in not-so-permanent structures.

And those middens tell you what these people ate, or made tools with, or whatever. You’ll find plant material used for clothing or medicines. And you know they were using them specifically for medicines because they’re specific plants with medicinal properties. And, combine that with cultural anthropology and you may find that modern indigenous groups use the same plants medicinally today. That subfield-within-a-subfield is called ethnobotany…the study of plant use by different ethic groups. Typically it’s the study of plant use by indigenous groups because they’re traditionally the focus of anthropology. Sociology got urban settings and anthropology got the rural ones. But anthropologists have a kind of lighthearted dismissal of sociology. So anthropologists now go into urban settings using their awesome analytical and descriptive lenses within modern groups in the inner city…kind of like social workers but with different potential reasoning.

So archaeologists study the remains of cultures. These can be the remains of modern cultures, but traditionally they’ll study cultures like ancient Rome or Egypt or Peru. They study every aspect. The plants and animals the cultures interacted with. The ways those plants and animals were represented in their art or literature. The spiritual beliefs and architecture. The symbolism within the architecture. Their language and writing. Their legends and histories. If possible, their music.

Basically, archaeology is the same as cultural anthropology…only it studies the remains of a culture, rather than cultures that are currently going on. You can do an archaeological study of the remains of a settlement or event within an existing culture. But really, if something is there, it’s cultural. If something isn’t there, it’s archaeology.

I can do an archaeological study of my back yard to find out what the people who lived here before I did were up to. A professor I had in my undergrad did an archaeological study of the remains of a car accident that happened on some property he owns. But if something is currently going on and you can just go ask the people doing it what they’re up to…it’s cultural.

NEXT UP is Linguistic Anthropology.

There are two kinds of linguist. There is the linguist who is skilled in multiple languages. These are people like diplomats that know English, French, Russian, German and Mandarin Chinese, so they can interact appropriately and just be a general badass.

Then there’s the anthropological linguist. Linguistic anthropologists study the structure and syntax of language and how languages differ regionally and change throughout time. They’ll study the ways people speak in relation to the ways it differs regionally, then contextualize it historically to gain insight into the ways the language has changed over time.

You do irritating but fascinating stuff in linguistics. Like take English sentences and break them down into subject, verb and object phrases, and then learn how to do that with languages you don’t understand. You can get a lot of information out of languages you don’t even know by doing this. You can eventually separate prefixes, suffixes and infixes. If you know one or two words or suffixes, you can really start figuring some things out.

From there you can eventually develop a picture of the migration and evolution of languages throughout space and time.

So, combine that with archaeology and cultural anthropology and you can better understand the evolution of culture for thousands of years. Migrations and interrelationships of different populations. All that good stuff.

Lastly, and my personal favorite, is Biological Anthropology. It’s also called Physical Anthropology but more recently the term Biological has replaced Physical. By and large it’s interchangeable, but I find the word physical to be slightly misleading to the layperson because…well…if you can touch something it has physical properties. So unless you’re specifically trained in anthropology, you may think a book might be studied by a physical anthropologist, not a cultural anthropologist or archaeologist.


Biological anthropology is the study of human biology and human biological origins. It includes the study of current populations, extinct populations, fossil ancestors and primates. There are several subfields within biological anthropology. Paleoanthropology, primatology, behavioral ecology, human biology, bioarchaeology, paleopathology and forensics. And maybe some odd offshoots here and there. I’m not going to get into them all, just those with which I am particularly familiar.

First is obviously (if you know me at all, or have read anything I’ve written on the topic including why I chose the name of this blog) is paleoanthropology. Paleoanthropology is the study of biological human origins. Similar to what my friend said, it’s like archaeology. But, it’s older.

Paleoanthropologists are often not studying bones in the literal sense. They (we) are often studying fossilized bone. By the time a bone has become a fossil, minerals have seeped into the bone as it deteriorated over time, and they solidified into a perfect casted replica of the bone as it looked when it was a bone.

It’s actually pretty incredible. If you’ve ever seen one of those sand candles where a hole is dug into sand and wax is poured. Or if you’ve ever seen casted jewelry or anything else. That’s kinda sorta a little bit maybe loosely similar to a fossil in that it’s exactly representative of the shape of the hole…with every little nuance and crevice. Only it’s made of wax, not whatever was in the hole in the first place.

Ever see a stalagmite or stalactite? A fossil is like one of those, only perfectly formed to a bone that was once buried there. The mineral-rich water trickled into the cavity where the bone was hanging out. It leeched into the bone, and as the bone decomposed, it remained there.

It’s datable because certain minerals can be dated radioactively. And as rocks, they kinda last a while. It’s really unlikely that any individual animal is going to fossilize. But once you do, you’re fairly well immortal.

So paleoanthropologists take the tools of the archaeologist and try and reconstruct the societies or environments in which our ancestors lived. Some of these critters had buildings that they constructed to live in temporarily or semi-permanently. Some didn’t. Some had art, some didn’t. Some made a variety of tools from stone or bone or antler or whatever. Some didn’t.

You can see going back in time the diminishing complexity of these tools. Then reverse it and you can see the increasing complexity. Then combine that with what we know of modern cultures, and what we know of modern nonhuman primate populations and you start realizing that even the least complex of stone tools is actually the product of immensely complex mental processes.

I mention nonhuman primates. Primatology is the study of primates. Humans are primates. If we want to understand humans, we should look to our closest relatives. Primates are incredibly diverse in terms of habitat and social structure. They communicate in complex ways and understand the calls of other primates and respond to them accordingly. Some intentionally deceive one another or their human researchers.

Biological anthropologists will look at the behavioral overlap between humans and our nonhuman cousins and attempt to then study what is different about humans and also unique to the other primates they study.

The last bit I’m going to talk about here is forensics. Everybody knows forensics. Forensic anthropologists take skeletal remains and study them and their structure and potential pathologies in order to reconstruct something about the life and death of the people they used to belong to.

There are aspects of this in cultural anthropology and archaeology, and even paleoanthropology. Forensic anthropology in a cultural sense may be looking at a murder victim. In archaeology, maybe you’ll be looking at a human sacrifice or mass grave somewhere. In paleoanthropology, maybe you’ll be looking at cut marks in bone to try and discern whether they were the product of natural occurrences (such as a rock slide or animal scavenging), or tool marks from ancient individuals processing them to carry and eventually eat. Or processing them for ritual purposes!!

In all of these fields, you can see overlap with the other. Culture permeates every aspect. Even nonhuman primates will display aspects of it. Chimps will hunt with spears. Some populations chew certain plants whose fibers will skewer intestinal parasites and purge their system of them almost completely. Yet they only do this at certain times of year (when parasites are around in higher concentration) and in the morning (before there’s a buncha food in their system). The study of how animals use plants medicinally and the degree to which they know they are doing so is called zoopharmacognosy.

Cultures that no longer exist become the archaeological record, but in some aspects archaeology is no different from cultural except in that we can’t ask our interview questions in a literal sense.

Paleo is in some aspects no different from archaeology except in that you are often not dealing with biological remains, but fossils, and not dealing with animals that could create the kinds of technology we did, and may not have had the kinds of cultural manifestations that we have, such as art and clothing.

Linguistic anthropology becomes more theoretical as you move back in time. But if you look at nonhuman primates and come to understand the cognition needed for their communication, and you look at symbolic representation going back through time, you can see the thread connecting linguistics to every aspect of anthropology and human evolution.

Communication among animals is universal to some extent…even if you’re just some kinda sea sponge thing that just responds to water temperature or pheromones that trigger you to dump your wad. Language is uniquely human. As culture emerged, as humans emerged, symbolic behavior emerged. In the context of clothing and art and body adornment. And in the context of language. It’s not really so easy to parse out whether anyone before Homo sapiens had language, but it’s undeniable that it separates us from the rest of animals on the planet.

So that’s anthropology. Briefly. That’s the 45 minute lecture I hold back on giving whenever someone doesn’t quite know.

Really it’s been a very forward thinking science, in all. Like I said, it led Franz Boas to (correctly.) reject race as a biological reality in the early early 20th century. It’s been remarkably populated with women, too. Within anthropology, there are several foundational thinkers who were women.

Margaret Mead, for example. Her research led her to conclude that the differences in male and female behavior were due to enculturation rather than biological differences between the sexes. I think a lot of people have heard of her, whether they realize she was an anthropologist or not.

Next…I know you’ve heard of Jane Goodall. If not, you’re lying. Paleoanthropologist Lewis Leakey sorta rounded up several women to go and study the great apes. Jane Goodall is the world’s leading awesome person (primatologist) studying chimpanzees. Diane Fossey was the same, but with gorillas. Her work with gorillas led her to become an activist on their behalf, and she wound up being murdered for it. Her story became popular when Sigourney Weaver played her in the biopic, Gorillas in the Mist.

These are pop culture figures. And anthropologists. And female academics and scientists. I don’t think of female scientists when I think of foundational thinkers. Except maybe Rosalind Franklin, who discovered DNA before Watson and Crick but was overshadowed because she’s not a guy.

That’s not too say anthropology is without its flaws. It’s rife with the same disgusting behavior and treatment of women and indigenous people and people of color that any science is. Prime example, and one you’d hear (or did hear) about in any 100 level anthropology course is the Tuskegee experiments. These were clinical experiments on African american people conducted by anthropologists working for the United States government…for forty years. Not okay.

They acted like they were offering free medical care and burial insurance for the people…who were told they were being treated for “bad blood.” These experiments continued AFTER syphilis was treatable.

It’s kind of a blemish on the history of anthropology….

And again. Women don’t exactly get stellar treatment. That women are at the core of anthropological thinking is wonderful…and definitely progressive. But women still have difficulty becoming established in the field in ways that just don’t affect men. It’s awful. And it’s particularly shameful given the seemingly holistic origins, and absolutely holistic intentions of the science.

I’ve also been the only man in several of my classes, and at most there were never more than five. I also had only three male anthropology professors during my undergrad. I think that despite the misogynistic shortcomings of academia, there is something to be said for that.


Really what it comes down to is anthropology isn’t a subject so much as a lens. It’s a way of looking at the world. An intellectual tool kit that affects the way you interact with everything you come into contact with going forward. It moves you to wonder, rather than assume. It leads you to ask deep questions from a position of your own ignorance and curiosity, rather than leading the individual being asked to believe there’s something wrong with them for their difference in views.

I described it to one social worker friend of mine as “like social work, but without the emotional distress.” It sort of gives you the tools to approach things with equal footing. But unlike social work, the concepts aren’t approached with the intention to improve the situation. Which sounds crummy, but anthropologists kind of contextualize subcultures within the overarching society as a whole. Without an agenda, we are perhaps uniquely suited to present topics that a bit controversial. It isn’t to say we don’t get emotionally invested in the individuals studied. And really when it comes down to it…when people like Diane Fossey are willing to get macheted to death to protect their subjects…maybe the line between cultural anthropology and social work is more fine than I’m envisioning.

You learn to see your own privilege without equating it necessarily with fault. You learn to no longer feel insecure in your own ignorance. And you learn to understand that different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong or worse.


Go get a degree in anthropology. And then we can talk about stuff nobody knows about. They’ll think we study dinosaurs. And let’s face it. Dinosaurs are cool.


About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 01/11/2015, in Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, General Science, Paleoanthropology, Primatology. and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    Wow I loved that post. Now I know what and how to answer in a detailed manner when someone asks me.

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