Biological anthropology

Biological anthropology, also known as physical anthropology, is a scientific discipline concerned with the biological and behavioral aspects of human beings, their extinct hominin ancestors, and related non-human primates, particularly from an evolutionary perspective.[1] It is a subfield of anthropology that provides a biological perspective to the systematic study of human beings.


As a subfield of anthropology, biological anthropology itself is further divided into several branches. All branches are united in their common orientation and/or application of evolutionary theory to understanding human biology and behavior.

  • Paleoanthropology is the study of fossil evidence for human evolution, mainly using remains from extinct hominin and other primate species to determine the morphological and behavioral changes in the human lineage, as well as the environment in which human evolution occurred.
  • Human biology is an interdisciplinary field of biology, biological anthropology, nutrition and medicine, which concerns international, population-level perspectives on health, evolution, anatomy, physiology, molecular biology, neuroscience, and genetics.
  • Primatology is the study of non-human primate behavior, morphology, and genetics. Primatologists use phylogenetic methods to infer which traits humans share with other primates and which are human-specific adaptations.
  • Human behavioral ecology is the study of behavioral adaptations (foraging, reproduction, ontogeny) from the evolutionary and ecologic perspectives (see behavioral ecology). It focuses on human adaptive responses (physiological, developmental, genetic) to environmental stresses.
  • Bioarchaeology is the study of past human cultures through examination of human remains recovered in an archaeological context. The examined human remains usually are limited to bones but may include preserved soft tissue. Researchers in bioarchaeology combine the skill sets of human osteology, paleopathology, and archaeology, and often consider the cultural and mortuary context of the remains.
  • Paleopathology is 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 morphology of bones over time, evidence of physical trauma, or evidence of occupationally derived biomechanic stress.
  • Evolutionary psychology is the study of psychological structures from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations – that is, the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution.
  • Evolutionary biology is the study of the evolutionary processes that produced the diversity of life on Earth, starting from a single common ancestor. These processes include natural selection, common descent, and speciation.



Johann Friedrich Blumenbach
Franz Boas

Biological Anthropology looks different today than it did even twenty years ago. The name is even relatively new, having been 'physical anthropology' for over a century, with some practitioners still applying that term. [2] Biological anthropologists look back to the work of Charles Darwin as a major foundation for what they do today. However, if one traces the intellectual genealogy and the culture back to physical anthropology's beginnings--going further back than the existence of much of what we know now as the hominin fossil record--then history focuses in on the field's interest in human biological variation. Some editors, see below, have rooted the field even deeper than formal science.

Attempts to study and classify human beings as living organisms date back to ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 347 BC) placed humans on the scala naturae, which included all things, from inanimate objects at the bottom to deities at the top.[3] This became the main system through which scholars thought about nature for the next roughly 2,000 years.[3] Plato's student Aristotle (c. 384–322 BC) observed in his History of Animals that human beings are the only animals to walk upright[3] and argued, in line with his teleological view of nature, that humans have buttocks and no tails in order to give them a cushy place to sit when they are tired of standing.[3] He explained regional variations in human features as the result of different climates.[3] He also wrote about physiognomy, an idea derived from writings in the Hippocratic Corpus.[3] Scientific physical anthropology began in the 17th to 18th centuries with the study of racial classification (Georgius Hornius, François Bernier, Carl Linnaeus, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach).[4]

The first prominent physical anthropologist, the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) of Göttingen, amassed a large collection of human skulls (Decas craniorum, published during 1790–1828), from which he argued for the division of humankind into five major races (termed Caucasian, Mongolian, Aethiopian, Malayan and American).[5] In the 19th century, French physical anthropologists, led by Paul Broca (1824-1880), focused on craniometry[6] while the German tradition, led by Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), emphasized the influence of environment and disease upon the human body.[7]

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[8] those of the American polygenist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851).[9]

In the late 19th century, German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) strongly impacted biological anthropology by emphasizing the influence of culture and experience on the human form. His research showed that head shape was malleable to environmental and nutritional factors rather than a stable "racial" trait.[10] However, scientific racism still persisted in biological anthropology, with prominent figures such as Earnest Hooton and Aleš Hrdlička promoting theories of racial superiority[11] and a European origin of modern humans.[12]

"New Physical Anthropology"

In 1951 Sherwood Washburn, a former student of Hooton, introduced a "new physical anthropology."[13] 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 include paleoanthropology and primatology.[14] The 20th century also saw the modern synthesis in biology: the reconciling of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel’s research on heredity. Advances in the understanding of the molecular structure of DNA and the development of chronological dating methods opened doors to understanding human variation, both past and present, more accurately and in much greater detail.

Notable biological anthropologists

  • Zeresenay Alemseged
  • John Lawrence Angel
  • George J. Armelagos
  • William M. Bass
  • Caroline Bond Day
  • Jane E. Buikstra
  • William Montague Cobb
  • Robert Corruccini
  • Raymond Dart
  • Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt
  • Linda Fedigan
  • A. Roberto Frisancho
  • Jane Goodall
  • Earnest Hooton
  • Aleš Hrdlička
  • Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
  • Anténor Firmin
  • Dian Fossey
  • Birute Galdikas
  • Richard Lynch Garner
  • Colin Groves
  • Yohannes Haile-Selassie
  • Ralph Holloway
  • William W. Howells
  • Donald Johanson
  • Robert Jurmain
  • Melvin Konner
  • Louis Leakey
  • Mary Leakey
  • Richard Leakey
  • Frank B. Livingstone
  • Owen Lovejoy
  • Jonathan M. Marks
  • Robert D. Martin
  • Russell Mittermeier
  • Desmond Morris
  • Douglas W. Owsley
  • David Pilbeam
  • Kathy Reichs
  • Alice Roberts
  • Pardis Sabeti
  • Eugenie C. Scott
  • Meredith Small
  • Phillip V. Tobias
  • Douglas H. Ubelaker
  • Sherwood Washburn
  • David Watts
  • Tim White
  • Milford H. Wolpoff
  • Richard Wrangham

See also

  • Anthropometry, the measurement of the human individual
  • Biocultural anthropology
  • Ethology
  • Evolutionary anthropology
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Human evolution
  • Paleontology
  • Primatology
  • Sociobiology


  1. Jurmain, R, et al (2015), Introduction to Physical Anthropology, Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
  2. Ellison, Peter T. (2018). "The evolution of physical anthropology". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 165.4: 615-625. 2018.
  3. Spencer, Frank (1997). "Aristotle (384–322 BC)". In Spencer, Frank (ed.). History of Physical Anthropology. 1. New York City, New York and London, England: Garland Publishing. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-0-8153-0490-6.
  4. Marks, J. (1995) Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  5. "The Blumenbach Skull Collection at the Centre of Anatomy, University Medical Centre Göttingen". University of Goettingen. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  6. "Memoir of Paul Broca". The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 10: 242–261. 1881. JSTOR 2841526.
  7. "Rudolf Carl Virchow facts, information, pictures". Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  8. Gail E. Husch (2000). Something Coming: Apocalyptic Expectation and Mid-nineteenth-century American painting - by Gail E. Husch - ...the same inward and mental nature is to be recognized in all the races of men. ISBN 9781584650065. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  9. "Exploring U.S. History The Debate Over Slavery, Excerpts from Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana". RRCHNM. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  10. Moore, Jerry D. (2009). "Franz Boas: Culture in Context". Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Walnut Creek, California: Altamira. pp. 33–46.
  11. American Anthropological Association. "Eugenics and Physical Anthropology." 2007. August 7, 2007.
  12. Bones of contention, controversies in the search for human origins, Roger Lewin, p. 89
  13. Washburn, S. L. (1951) “The New Physical Anthropology”, Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II, 13:298–304.
  14. Haraway, D. (1988) “Remodelling the Human Way of Life: Sherwood Washburn and the New Physical Anthropology, 1950–1980”, in Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology, of the History of Anthropology, v.5, G. Stocking, ed., Madison, Wisc., University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 205–259.

Further reading

  • 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"
  • Brown, Ryan A and Armelagos, George, "Apportionment of Racial Diversity: A Review", Evolutionary Anthropology 10:34–40 2001
  • Modern Human Variation: Models of Classification
  • Redman, Samuel J. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2016.
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