The human preoccupation with time extends into humankind’s study of ourselves: anthropology, the science of humanity’s past, present, and future. Only by studying ourselves, and how our ancestors behaved in the past, can we learn about our nature. In the past, human societies rose and fell, subject to external and internal factors. We respond to the environment we find ourselves in, struggle to adapt to or overcome obstacles, and attempt to thrive and perpetuate ourselves. To be human is to have a human nature, and the more we learn about our past the clearer it becomes that we have not changed much in the past 100,000 years since developing into what we call “modern humans.” By studying past and present human mistakes and triumphs, we hope to improve our own future.
Anthropology is a broad discipline that has been steadily growing since its inception in the 19th century. It contains many subbranches and undoubtedly will acquire more as time passes. In North America anthropology is known as a “four- field” discipline. Its major branches are biological anthropology, archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology.
History of Anthropology
Given human nature, it is clear that our ancestors began speculating about their origins long before the written word was invented. The early creation myths of ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia that have come down to us in writing, date to the 2nd millennium BCE When true “anthropological” thinking came about is a matter of speculation. The term anthropology is a 19th-century combination of two Greek words: dvOponoç, anthropos, “human being, man,” and Xo’yog, logos, “knowledge”), and the earliest writing we have on the scientific speculation of human origins is Greek as well. The 6th-century BCE philosopher Anaximander (c. 610-c. 546 BCE) lived in Miletus in Ionia (modern western Turkey, i.e., Anatolia) and became a part of a school of philosophy called Milesian (named after Miletus). Although his works survive in only one fragment, citations by later classical authors provide us with what little we know about him. Among his influential ideas, which ranged from astronomy to cartography, he developed the earliest known “scientific” hypothesis of human evolution. Anaximander believed that the earth was once composed entirely of water and that the first life forms came from there, and in this he was basically correct. Furthermore, according to Anaximander, when parts of the earth dried up, some of the fishlike animals came up on shore, bearing human beings within themselves like fetuses, which then emerged from their aquatic parents when fully acclimatized. However, Anaximander’s ideas that humans developed somehow from other organisms were eclipsed by those of Plato (c. 428/427-c. 348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), two later philosophers whose ideas would dominate Western thinking for centuries to come. Plato was a believer in essentialism, a point of view that maintained that any given entity was created as perfect and possessed a series of characteristics, all of which any entity of that kind must have. Plato believed in eternal, ideal forms, which are reflected in material objects although far superior to them; these ideal types (Platonic ideals) had neither the need nor the ability to change. Aristotle believed that all creatures were arranged in a scala naturae, or “great chain of being”: a system of 11 grades of perfection beginning with plants and ending with human beings. Higher creatures gave birth to warm and wet live offspring, and the lower ones bore theirs cold and dry, in eggs. These ideas were prevalent for centuries, essentially hindering any thought of human evolution or change through time. The 5th-century Greek (also from western Anatolia) Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 BCE), often referred to as father of the study of history, could also be considered the father of another aspect of anthropology: ethnography, the writing down of firsthand observations of foreign cultures. In his travels throughout the ancient world, Herodotus was using many methods in common with those of modern anthropologists, such as locating the best-informed people to provide information about history and customs.
The medieval world saw little progress in anthropology. When Catholicism grew in power following the era of the Roman Empire, its dogmatic insistence upon a literal reading of the Bible, according to which God created each and every species as is, and that no species, once created, could be destroyed, held sway. The belief that the earth was fairly young also prevailed. The English bishop James Ussher (c. 1581-1656) developed a chronology based upon a careful reading of the Old Testament and concluded that the earth was created on the evening of October 23, 4004 BCE; how he arrived at such a specific date was in fact a remarkable act of scholarship.
By the 17th century CE, geologists were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with this sort of thinking because it failed to explain the collections of fossils and what was understood of geology; in chronologies such as Ussher’s there was simply not enough time. In the 17th and 18th centuries the exploration of the globe drastically changed how people thought of the world. Human and animal diversity across the earth was too vast to be explicable in terms of a common ancestry in the Garden of Eden; change through time must therefore have taken place. The existence of fossils, in their geological contexts, of creatures that nearly, but not quite, resembled modern ones, was additional evidence for change. The presence of creatures such as dinosaurs, without modern equivalents, spoke strongly for the notion of extinction, also in contrast to the earlier beliefs regarding Creation. In the 18th century Carolus Linneaus (1707-1778), a Swedish botanist (who initially had believed that species were unchangeable), classified every species as a member of a genus, which in turn were classified into the progressively more general categories: family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom. The Linnean taxonomy was the culmination of 2,000 years of thought, and its development made Linneaus reconsider his earlier belief in the fixity of species.
Geologists in the 19th century were eventually unconvinced that the earth was less than 6,000 years old and believed that the earth formed and changed in the past by means of the same processes that existed in the present. The concept of uniformitarianism replaced the older notion of catastrophism, which held that catastrophic events (such as the Biblical Flood) were responsible for wiping out earlier life forms. The naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) forever changed scientific thought with his volumes On the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man, in which he espoused the mechanism of natural selection to explain the variability of life on Earth and that ultimately humans were descended from apelike ancestors. The concept of evolution was thus born. At the same time, although unbeknownst to Darwin, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) did pioneering experiments on the principles of inheritance using pea plants. Despite all these rapid and astounding developments in scientific thought, it would take more than half a century for ideas concerning inheritance, natural selection, and evolution to merge into the concepts we are familiar with today. By the 1950s enough research had been done so that the basics were widely understood. (The search for human ancestors had been under way since the late 19th century.)
Other branches of anthropology were also coming into their own. Archaeological excavations of sites such as ancient Troy began in the late 1800s, and the first ethnographers, ancestors of modern cultural anthropologists, were recording their observations on cultures and languages that were steadily vanishing in the face of Western encroachment. The four fields of modern anthropology—biological, sociocultural, archaeology, and linguistic—were all in place by the dawn of the 20th century.
Also known as physical anthropology, biological anthropology is concerned primarily with the physical and biological attributes of humans and human ancestors as a species of animal. Biological anthropologists study human beings using much the same methodologies that they would use for other animals. Until recently, biological anthropology dealt largely with human bones and fossils, but advances in the fields of genetics and molecular biology have extended the discipline to include these aspects as well. Consequently, the study of human genetics, known as molecular anthropology, is included in the category of biological anthropology. Therefore the term biological anthropologist is rather general and may designate a specialist in a number of different areas, such as human evolution (paleoanthropology), nonhuman primate biology (primatology), variation among modern human populations, and forensic investigation (forensic anthropology).
The study of human evolution (paleoanthropology) is the study of the processes that led to our becoming modern humans, which began around 65 million years ago with the emergence of the first primates. As human beings are primates, paleoanthropologists study the skeletons and fossilized remains of not only humans and human ancestors, but also nonhuman primates as well. Fossils in general are dated using the potassiumargon (K-Ar) method that measures the decay of potassium into argon gas; this dating method, like others, is constantly being refined.
In just over 100 years, scientists have amassed fossils from an increasing variety of human ancestors and distant relations. The field can be said to have originated in 1856 with the accidental discovery of the famous Neanderthal skeleton, named after the Neander Valley, Germany, where it was found. A long time passed before other important discoveries, such as that of Homo erectus, or “Peking man” by Eugene Dubois and “Java man” at the Trinil site in 1819. DuBois’s discovery was remarkable because he had set out to find exactly that: a human ancestor. Unfortunately, few members of the scientific community accepted his “missing link,” and DuBois retreated from the limelight, keeping his precious fossil remains under his bed and showing them to few. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, great debate raged over where human ancestors originated. Racist beliefs of the time tended toward Asia rather than Africa. However, in the 1920s, important discoveries were made in Africa, most notably Raymond Dart’s “Taung child,” or Australopithecus africanus, one of the earliest human ancestors. Later important discoveries in Africa include that of Australopithecus robustus and Homo habilis by Louis Leakey in the 1950s and 1960s, and then the earliest-known hominid ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, or “Lucy,” in the 1970s by Tom Gray and Donald C. Johanson. Added to these basic genera are also (among others) Homo ergaster, Homo rudolphensis, Homo georgicus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo florensiensis, the most recent find that continues to amaze people. (Homo florensiensis appears to be a diminutive descendant of Homo erectus that gradually “shrank” after reaching the small island of Flores; it is estimated that the creature was under 4 feet tall.) It is certain that the more fossils that are found, the more complex a picture will emerge of the process of human evolution. It is a far cry from the “ladder” that earlier scientists had imagined and now resembles more a complicated web, with numerous branches, dead ends, convergences, and overlaps. The timeline of human evolution is constantly being modified, and any given textbook is guaranteed to be somewhat out of date by the time it is published because of an ever-increasing body of evidence. Although the fossil record is by nature very fragmentary and there are many gaps in our knowledge, we do have a broad understanding of the various factors that led our ancestors on the path to critical developments such as bipedalism and tool making. Because organisms are inseparable from their environments, paleoanthropologists must consider the big picture when hypothesizing about human evolution, climatic change being an essential variable. Genetic research has also contributed greatly to our understanding of evolution. While opinions are constantly fluctuating, genetic evidence has recently demonstrated that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Homo sapiens were too different in terms of their DNA to have been able to interbreed (modern humans having coexisted with Neanderthals for thousands of years). Neanderthals therefore were probably not our ancestors, but rather one of many hominid “offshoots” that left no descendants. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) evidence has also called into question the hypothesis that Homo erectus developed independently into modern humans in different parts of the world (Africa and Asia), as the fossil evidence suggests. Genetic evidence supports a different hypothesis: the “Mitochondrial Eve,” or “Out of Africa” school of thought, in which modern human beings developed only in Africa and then spread out, gradually replacing earlier populations of Homo erectus. Debates over large issues such as this demonstrate how much we have to learn about our own ancestry.
As we can never observe what our ancestors actually looked like, or how they behaved, primatology, the study of nonhuman primates, is an essential component of paleoanthropology, and a very diverse discipline in and of itself. Some subjects that it comprises are primate anatomy, field studies of primate behavior, and experiments with communication and animal psychology. Observing nonhuman primate behavior in both the wild and in captivity gives anthropologists a scientific basis for hypothesizing on ancestral human behavior. Primates are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom and include Asian and African apes and monkeys, as well as the prosimians: lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers. Issues especially relevant to human evolution include social behavior, food gathering and sharing, patterns of conflict, communication, learning, and tool use. Perhaps the most famous primatologist is Jane Goodall (b. 1934), who has popularized the discipline on television and film through her work with chimpanzees and through her numerous scholarly and popular publications (such as children’s books).
Forensic anthropology entails the identification and analysis of (generally modern) human remains. Forensic anthropologists are trained to recognize such things as time since death (based on the decomposition of soft tissue and bone); taphonomy (postdepositional changes); ethnic group, age, and sex of the individual; physical characteristics such as height and weight; abnormalities and trauma; and cause of death. Forensic anthropologists are able to assist in murder investigations and the identification of remains of victims of accidents, war, and genocide. Forensic anthropologists are also called upon to identify remains of the victims of mass-slaughter events and to locate and repatriate the remains of soldiers who died overseas. As more sophisticated techniques develop, the ability of these specialists to help solve crimes in cooperation with law enforcement agencies has grown. It comes as no surprise, then, that popular culture has, in recent years, highlighted the work of forensic anthropologists on television shows (both documentaries and dramas) and in novels.
Archaeology is primarily the study of past cultures through the excavation and analysis of material remains. Given the absence of time travel and the relatively short period in which history has been written down (about 5,000 years), archaeology is our only window into the past. In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, archaeology is considered a separate discipline from anthropology, although clearly related. In the United States, archaeology is still largely considered a branch of anthropology. Archaeologists study change through time. The archaeologist usually has a particular research question, or hypothesis, in mind before proceeding to fieldwork. A site appropriate to testing this hypothesis is then selected or searched for. Archaeological sites can be as massive as the Pyramids of Giza or as small as a 1 x 1 meter pit excavated into the ground where human beings have left any kind of trace behind. An archaeologist may use a combination of techniques to acquire data, such as surface survey of ruins, mapping, and excavation. Depending on the type of site, different methods are employed, and these vary from country to country as well. Archaeologists differ from paleoanthropologists in that they study the period following the advent of modern humans, although excavation techniques naturally are not very different. Like paleoanthropologists, archaeologists are above all concerned with the temporal perspective of human culture, that is, the diachronic perspective.
Archaeologists are, by nature, almost obsessed with time; dates are the subject of endless discussions and debates. Archaeologists have a number of tools at their disposal to date a particular site. Where available, written documentation is often the most accurate and valuable tool. (For example, the Maya were master astronomers, calendar makers, and date keepers.) This can be in the form of an inscription on a temple, stating when and by whom it was dedicated, or by a simple coin bearing a date. However, as writing has existed for only around 5,000 years, many archaeologists must rely on other means. The most basic means of dating a site is through the study of stratigraphy. A stratum is a layer of deposition, and in principle, the lower layers contain deposits older than the upper ones. However, this gives the archaeologists only a relative chronology, in that one thing can be said to be older or younger than another thing, without an absolute reference point. More scientific means are necessary to secure an actual date. The most precise scientific method for this is dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating. Using a vast database of tree-ring chronology throughout certain areas of the world, archaeologists can, in some cases, pinpoint the year in which a piece of wood, such as a house-post, was cut down (long-lived species of trees are necessary for this). However, this method works only for areas in which wood is preserved, namely, arid ones such as the American Southwest. A more universal method is C-14 radiocarbon dating, which measures the decay of the unstable isotope carbon-14, which is absorbed by all living organisms. This method tells us, within several decades, the date of an organism’s death; a piece of charcoal from a fire pit, for example (the date comes from death of the piece of wood that was later burned). This method is usable for sites as old as 60,000 years; for (mainly fossils) prior to that, potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating is used. Thermoluminesence dating is a technique for dating ceramics, where they exist (it measures when the object was fired). Changes in artifact styles, especially pottery styles (shapes, forms of decoration, etc.) are also extremely important and are often used as a chronological basis.
An archaeologist’s fieldwork is only a fraction of the process. Once all the data collection has been done, the material—which usually consists of broken tools, ceramics, and midden (food remains)—is transported back to a laboratory where analysis is undertaken. Among things that archaeologists look for are what kinds of food were being consumed and what kinds of objects were being produced and used. Patterns through time are carefully studied and hypotheses postulated. Because archaeologists recover only a small fraction of the remains that a given culture leaves behind, they must often resort to other aspects of anthropology to fill in the gaps. Linguistic data can be extremely valuable, as can ethnographies about either the culture’s descendants or those of a similar one. To reconstruct the environment of the culture in question, an archaeologist will often collaborate with environmental specialists who study ancient pollen (palynolo- gists). Other specialists, such as geologists and climatologists, and geneticists, are also brought into the field. Within archaeology there are many subdisciplines, such as archaeozoology, which studies animal remains, and archaeoastronomy, which focuses on ancient astronomies. Archaeology also is not confined to the surface of the earth; underwater archaeology focuses largely on shipwrecks and other submerged sites. By nature, archaeology is destructive: A site, once excavated, no longer exists. Extensive record keeping during excavation is therefore essential. Whereas the basic tools of the archaeologist, such as the shovel and trowel, have not changed much since the discipline began in earnest in the late 1800s, advances in technology continue to contribute to the sorts of questions that can be addressed. Computer modeling and simulations, geographic information systems, DNA studies, geochemical sourcing, and stable isotope analysis are but a few examples of the means now available.
Of increasing importance in archaeology is cultural resource management (CRM). In the past 30 years, CRM has grown in importance throughout the Western world. Although the laws vary from state to state, any building project participated in by the U.S. government is required to hire archaeologists to make sure that any site disturbed or threatened is assessed, studied, and documented. At the higher levels, professional archaeologists may have doctorate, master’s, or bachelor’s degrees. CRM is especially critical when human remains are unearthed, especially those of Native Americans (including Hawaiians). CRM, however, is hampered by difficulties such as time constraints, report submission, and legal and ethical issues. Much of the findings obtained through CRM, therefore, are not widely circulated or published, although everything must, by law, be put on record in the local State Historic Preservation Division’s office. Although usually separate from academic institutions such as universities, many professional archaeologists are among the finest scholars working.
Also known simply as cultural anthropology (mainly in America) and social anthropology (in Britain), sociocultural anthropology is concerned with how human beings function, behave, and relate to one another within society. It treats human beings as transmitters of that complex set of standards and behaviors that we call culture. As human beings, the passage of time is naturally of great importance to us. How different cultures calculate and mark the passage of time is of great concern to sociocultural anthropologists. Rites of passage are rituals cultures employ to assist their members during life’s important transitions, and they are an important component of any given culture. Key events are birth, puberty, the transition into manhood or womanhood, marriage, status changes, procreation, and ultimately death. The French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) made a special study of rites of passage in Les rites de passage (1909). Van Gennep’s work has influenced scholars throughout the 20th century, notably Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) in his studies of mythology and heroic archetypes, and Victor Turner (1920-1983) in his work on comparative religions.
To understand a given culture, cultural anthropologists generally spend a great deal of time doing their fieldwork, which can take years. They must immerse themselves completely into the society they are studying; this study necessitates learning the language and acquiring a new set of social skills. Within cultural anthropology there are two principal components: ethnography and ethnology. (Ethnology is a term often used in Europe to describe cultural anthropology as a field.) An ethnography is a description of every possible aspect of a given culture: its sociopolitical organization, religion, economy, laws, kinship system, and gender relations being among the main components studied. Ethnology is the broader, cross-cultural study of societies that bases itself upon the descriptive data of ethnographies.
To compile an ethnography, the anthropologist must observe and participate in as many aspects as possible (participant observation), within reason and morality, and strive not to interfere with the culture itself. Cultural anthropologists must be efficient and extensive note takers and learn to extract as much true and valuable information as possible by speaking with and interviewing members of the community. Known generally as informants, these local experts must be, above all else, reliable. In interviewing, the anthropologist must be extremely diligent so as not to lead the informant in a particular direction so as to extract a desired answer. Paying informants is also a sensitive issue fraught with the risk of obtaining misinformation. Information gathered must be confirmed from multiple reliable sources before it can be taken as fact. Perhaps the most famous case of misinformation given to an anthropologist is Margaret Mead’s (one of the all-time “great” anthropologists) Coming of Age in Samoa. A classic still in print, the work made Mead’s career. Years later it came out that her informants had made up much of what they told her, thus negating a large part of the work’s value.
Among the most famous and influential thinkers in cultural anthropology were Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski. Boas (1858-1942) was born in Germany and received his doctorate in physics in 1881. He later made his name in anthropology while working with the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest; became a professor at Columbia University, where he started the first Ph.D. program in anthropology in the United States; and was a key founding member of the American Anthropological Association (Margaret Mead was Boas’s most famous student). Boas insisted that each culture be examined in its own context and not compared with others in time and space. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) was born in Poland and did his fieldwork in New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands. His most famous work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), is a classic in the field, detailing the trading practice of the Kula Ring, a complex network of gift giving and alliances. Malinowski eventually became a professor at Yale University.
Sociocultural anthropology is often thought of as having to deal with “primitive” peoples in far- off areas such as New Guinea or Africa. However, since the early 20th century there are no more places on Earth where people live in complete isolation and ignorance of the modern world. As a discipline, therefore, sociocultural anthropology often has to turn its looking glass onto peoples closer to home, as it were. Today’s sociocultural anthropologist may, for example, study some aspect of an ethnic minority neighborhood or the effects of the Internet upon a given population segment. The boundary between sociocultural anthropology and sociology is thus constantly being tested and blurred as the world we live in continues to shrink.
Human beings are the only animals on Earth that have actual language, as opposed to communication. How we express ourselves, in terms of words and grammar, is inextricably linked to how we understand and interpret the world around us. Languages have a dazzling array of expressions to reflect the passage of time. For example, basic verbal concepts such as tense (the absolute location of an event or action in time) and aspect (how an event or action is viewed with respect to time, rather than to its actual location in time) are emphasized and combined differently from one language to another. How a given culture views time is embedded in its language. In Western culture new terms for measuring time in increasingly smaller or more precise intervals are constantly appearing. Computers, for example, work in terms of nanoseconds (a billionth of a second), a term first used in 1958 when it became measurable.
Linguistic anthropologists study languages from various perspectives. By understanding the relationships between modern languages, and, when available for study, their ancient ancestors, linguistic anthropologists have been able to hypothesize about when and where various populations lived, migrated, and interacted. In studying a particular language family, linguistic anthropologists examine all the members, find commonalities in vocabulary and grammar, and reconstruct an ancestral language that can then be placed, tentatively, in time and space. This means of working backward to understand past populations is an invaluable asset to archaeologists, who often resort to linguistic data as additional evidence. Linguistic anthropologists also study the relationship between modern language speakers and their cultures (sociolinguistics) and how languages work in terms of grammar and syntax. Linguistic anthropologists can help modern peoples better understand and maintain their languages, thus salvaging data that might otherwise become lost.
Applied anthropology refers to the use of anthropological methods and theories to solve practical problems; virtually every aspect of anthropology can be put to such use. Medical anthropology is a subfield within cultural anthropology and is concerned specifically with human health and disease. Medical anthropologists focus on such things as traditional healing practices and conceptions of health and illness and how they relate to the society as a whole. Medical anthropologists are well positioned to put their knowledge to practical use (applied anthropology) by improving public health care and raising health-related awareness among the communities they study.
Anthropologists can also assist development agencies in their efforts to help developing nations. An anthropologist can provide knowledge and details about a given culture that would otherwise be unavailable, such as social needs, environmental constraints, and traditional labor organization. An anthropologist can also provide an impact assessment, by determining what the consequences of a given project would be on the local environment, in terms of pollution or deforestation, for example. All the factors are critical for the success of the long-term goals of a given project.
Ethnologists and linguistic anthropologists can also put their skills and knowledge to use in modern communities by clarifying the importance of such things as kin ties and dialect differences. The perspective offered by anthropologists can be invaluable when dealing with problematic cross- cultural situations.
Time and Anthropology
As anthropologists are scientists that study living and dead populations, time is always “of the essence.” While a variety of theories about anthropology abound, causing endless debates among those so inclined, it is generally recognized that people do not behave according to hard scientific laws. Although generalizations can be made about subjects such as warfare, social complexity, migration, diffusion, the role of the individual, and gender issues, to name but a few, what an anthropologist concludes is often more of a reflection on the time and place he or she lives in than an absolutely objective assessment of the material.
As people, we cannot, of course, travel back in time. The only way we can observe and learn
about the past is through observation of organic, material, and written remains. It is impossible to predict what anthropology will be like in, say, 100 years. New developments in science and technology will undoubtedly transform the discipline, as they have done in the past. Nevertheless, the basic goals of the anthropologist will remain constant: to study the past and present of humanity and the long journey it has taken and continues to take. As is the case with any other scientific discipline, an anthropologist’s findings are fixed in space and time, and conclusions are never absolute: They are always subject to change, refinement, discussion, and perhaps dismissal. The best any anthropologist can hope for is to develop an interpretation that, for the moment anyway, is as valid as the data permit.
See also Altamira Cave; Archaeology; Chauvet Cave; Evidence of Human Evolution, Interpreting; Evolution, Cultural; Evolution, Social; Harris, Marvin; Hominid- Pongid Split; Language; Language, Evolution of; Lascaux Cave; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Olduvai Gorge; Rapa Nui (Easter Island); Tylor, Edward Burnett; White, Leslie A.
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