A career in biological anthropology
by Ed Hagen — last modified May 27, 2009 08:16 PM
Basic information about Physical (Biological) Anthropology
WHAT IS ANTHROPOLOGY?
Anthropology is a scientific field of study with several divisions. One division, called cultural anthropology, focuses on an understanding of the way that people live in different societies or cultures around the world. Cultural anthropologists often conduct studies of peoples whose customs are quite different from our own and they attempt to explain the reasons for these complex patterns of social behavior. Another division, archaeology, is concerned with understanding societies that existed in the past. Archaeologists excavate or survey the remains of societies that existed many thousands of years ago or the remains of societies from recent times. A third division, linguistic anthropology, studies the nature of human languages. The division of anthropology called biological anthropology is very different from the others, it deals with both the social behavior and the biology of people--it is a biosocial science. These studies can be carried out on the skeletal remains of people from the past or on the biological characteristics of living people. Biological anthropologists are interested in human evolution, from our origins and diversity in the past to our probable future as inhabitants of this planet.
WHAT IS BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY?
Biological anthropology (also called physical anthropology), then, is an interesting mixture of social studies and biological studies; several other ingredients make it even more fascinating. The two primary concept areas that tend to hold biological anthropology together are human evolution and human biosocial variation; there are many topics that can be studied within these two concept areas.
In order to grasp how humans evolved from earlier life forms, we can look at our closest relatives, the primates. Primates include us (Homo sapiens), the apes, the monkeys, and prosimians, such as the lemur. We can learn about primate behavior by studying them in the wild, as Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees in Africa, or by studying them in small captive colonies. These studies by primatologists are particularly important now because many primates are endangered animals, and our knowledge of their behavior and environment may help them and us to survive in the future.
We can use the techniques of archaeology to uncover the skeletal remains of our ancestors from the distant past. The exciting findings of human paleontology (the study of fossils) have pushed back our ancestry as tool-using humans who walked on two legs to several million years ago. As Louis Leakey showed us, our early human ancestors probably hunted and foraged for food on the continent of Africa long befre North and South America or Australia were inhabited by people. Although we have learned a great deal about our ancestors within the last few decades, we are far from having a clear picture of our evolutionary history, and there is still much more to learn.
The knowledge that biological anthropologists gather on living populations falls into several overlapping categories. Again, evolution and biosocial variation are underlying themes in studies that deal with nutrition, child growth, health in societies, the genetics of human populations, and adaptation (adjustment) to the environment. For example, we try to understand how Eskimos have survived in the harsh cold of the Arctic using clever behavioral adaptations as well as biological adaptations. As another example, the presence of a strange disease in New Guinea natives led to the discovery of a whole new class of infectious organisms, and also won its discoverer, Dr. Carlton Gajdusek, the Nobel Prize.
WHAT DO BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGISTS DO?
Most biological anthropologists teach and do research at universities and colleges around the country. Some teach in high schools, as well. Others work for various state and federal government agencies, and still others are privately employed. At colleges and universities, they can be found in departments of anthropology, anatomy, biological sciences, human biology, zoology, and in medical school departments, and also in combined departments of sociology and anthropology or social sciences. Those who study primates are often in departments of biology or psychology or on the staffs of zoos or zoological research institutes. Human paleontologists may be employed in departments of paleontology, prehistory, or geology, or as staff members of natural history museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Biological anthropologists who work with living peoples may work at medical schools, or be found in departments of physiology, nutrition, or genetics, or programs of physical education and athletics. Besides teaching and research, biological anthropologists may do forensic (medical/legal) consultation (skeletal identification or DNA fingerprinting) for law enforcement agencies to assist in solving crimes. There are many and varied professional opportunities for biological anthropologists.
WHY IS BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY AN EXCITING AND REWARDING PROFESSION?
A profession that is stimulating and satisfying can make an individual's life an extremely enriching experience. Several things make the lives of professional biological anthropologists very exciting. There is the enjoyment of scientific research, with endless questions to be answered and discoveries to be made. Second, there is the opportunity to write and communicate the findings of your research to audiences of all kinds and all ages. Third, teaching, while hard work, is very rewarding, students provide a constant source of stimulation. Finally, most biological anthropologists do research in what is called "the field," outside of the conventional laboratory. Field research can take place in relatively exotic places such as Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific, or in hospitals and zoological parks, for example--anywhere an interesting biological problem has been identified. The "field" is really worldwide and wide open!
WHAT OPPORTUNITIES ARE THERE TO STUDY BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY?
There are many opportunities for individuals who wish to become biological anthropologists. While few high schools offer courses specifically in biological anthropology, many have courses in anthropology or cover anthropology in social studies classes. Programs in anthropology are available at hundreds of colleges and universities around the country, and most have courses in biological anthropology. If you wish to try a course or two before you begin college, try your local community college. If you wish to do some reading in biological anthropology, try some of the sources listed below.
- Biological Variation in Health and Illness: Race, Age, and Sex Differences by Theresa Overfield (1985) Addison Wesley Publishing Co., Menlo Park, CA.
- Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins by Roger Lewin, Simon Schuster, New York.
- Braindance by Dean Falk (1992) Henry Holt & Co., New York.
- Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (1983) Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- Human Ecology: The Story of Our Place in Nature from Prehistory to the Present by Bernard Campbell (1983) Aldine Publishing Co., New York.
- Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (1981) Simon & Schuster, New York.
- Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human by Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin (1992) Doubleday, New York. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall (1990) Houghton Mifflin, Boston. Often there are articles related to biological anthropology in the magazines Natural History, Discover, and Scientific American.