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What Is Physical Anthropology ?

In the seek of formality, “anthropology” is the study of humankind, from the literal interpretation of the word itself, derived from the Greek words anthropos, meaning “human,” and logos, meaning “word” or “study of.” Anthropology is not the only science in charge of studying the humankind. Still, it might be the broadest one because traditionally, it subdivides into archaeology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and physical (also named biological) anthropology.

“Culture is not biologically determined”, the statement that can be acknowledged through Anthropology, after years of applying scientific methods to analyze the past through mostly human remains (Physical Anthropology), artifacts (Archaeology), cultural analysis (Cultural Anthropology), and also understand the direct consequences on current times.

Anthropology is supposed to be the “science of men”, and one way to achieve it is Physical Anthropology, which has the concept of biocultural evolution as its main perspective. Physical Anthropology is the study of humankind on the biological scope, with an evolutionary basis and a cultural interpretation.

To understand humankind's processes, Physical Anthropology uses the scientific method to gather information. Still, its interpretation relies on interpretative methods to articulate biological and cultural fields because evolution is based on adaptation, and culture is an effective mechanism to achieve it, so it is vital to enrich the data’s understanding.

Anthropology is supposed to address the entire scope of the human experience. It brings multiple perspectives to bear on the study of what it is to be human because one particularity about the current form of humankind is to have a conscience of ourselves and question why, when, how, and where we started to happen.

The origin of physical anthropology as an independent branch of the anthropology tree can be found around the middle of the XIX century; as many sciences, its genesis corresponds to the ideological, economic, and political seek of answers demand.

The primary demand for this science was related to the position of humankind inside the animal spectrum. Scientists of every kind were aware of man’s position as part of a vast tree of species.

One of the first demands that physical anthropology responded to was the man’s position in the immense universe of species, and the second one was the differences between human groups. It must be addressed that this initial view had a hierarchical aim: the eurocentrism that has impregnated most of the scientific interpretations through time was reviewed in a previous article.


At first, when physical anthropology was born, not many scientists followed the “crazy idea” that stated humankind might have come from apes, but those scientists also didn’t have much proof about the biblical origin of humanity. One of the first studies conducted in physical anthropology as such science was the study of morphological variations of human bodies: somatotypes. According to Dickinson and Murguía (1980), the XIX Century was the “Golden age” for craniometry. Also, names like Virchow, Sergi, and especially Broca will develop systematic methodologies to analyze the spectrum of human skulls, determining craniometric and osteometric points by establishing averages and designing more precise tools to measure them.

Quest for Meaning – Human Evolution Illustration by Meantis

It must be addressed that, in the early stages, Physical Anthropology attended a reduced number of subjects because the evolutionist theory was not entirely accepted and genetics were not that advanced. So back then Physical Anthropology’s practice was reduced to anthropometry, composed of somatometry and osteometry in living humans and human remains.

One of the main events that changed the scenario was the finding of Neanderthal fossils in the 1800s, followed by the publication of the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin in 1859 shook once and forever the idea of the origin and antiquity of humankind.

Before now, humankind has never been as informed as today. Many things can be understood through the knowledge of ancient times, the biological and evolutionary dimensions of our species are studied by Physical Anthropology, such as genetics, anatomy, skeletal structure, adaptation to disease and other environmental (epigenetic) factors, growth, nutrition, and the processes that resulted in the development of modern humans and with it, the possible solutions for current problems.

“Past societies lacked archaeologists and television”

(Diamond, 2005 on Stein and Rowe, 2011)

Physical Anthropology is composed of many areas, such as the study of apes on their behavior and physiological changes. Genetics also play a main role, not only in identifying the transformation through time about some hereditary expressions, but also the migration patterns of our ancestors. Important findings have been made for example, about what it was thought to be the population in America, Monte Verde site in the south of South America was dated surprisingly older than imagined, and questioning that way, the First Clovis theory about the arrival to America.

As it was before, anthropometry is still used in sports, population studies, nutritional status, and in the case of human remains a lot of publications have been made about Musculoskeletal Stress Markers from past populations.

Some aspects of Physical Anthropology collide, for example, in Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology, human remains are analyzed following “the big four” of human remains: ancestry, stature, age, and biological sex. The main difference relies on the interpretation because it is named forensic anthropology when the context is an open forensic investigation and its final goal is identification. Everything that is not contained inside a legal frame is not Forensic Anthropology, is osteological analysis.

In the case of Forensic Anthropology, it is applied when the human remains are no longer possible to identify through traditional methodologies (fingerprints, recognition, etc.) because of the time passed after death. That is why it has become fundamental in human rights cases, related to detained disappeared, wars, and even catastrophe contexts.

A must in the formation of Physical Anthropologists is Anatomical Studies, that according to the focus (behavioral, biomechanics), can be studied in-depth, of course, it cannot be physical anthropology without evolution, and everything can be mixed and complemented with other areas of knowledge: for example, a study about Musculoskeletal Stress Markers in the bone should be assessed by kinesiologists.

Finally, one of the advantages of Physical Anthropology is the holistic interpretation of hard evidence to lead to a better understanding of the present and the past.


  • Barry Lewis, Robert Jurmain, Lynn Kilgore—Cengage Advantage Books_ Understanding Humans_ An Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology-Cengage Learning.pdf. (n.d.).

  • Federico Dickinson & Raul Murguía. (1980). Consideraciones respecto al objeto de estudio d ela antropología física.

  • Stein, P. L., & Rowe, B. M. (2011). Physical anthropology (10th ed). McGraw Hill.

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Melisa Silva

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