This semester I will guide you to the very threshold of your humanity where you will lock eyes with the shrieking, blood-drenched, sister-raping beast from which we sprang. You will also have to make a diorama.
-Professor June Bauer
(from the NBC sitcom, "Community")*
Many undergraduates sign up for Introduction to Anthropology classes because they need the elective. To their thinking, what could be more fun than learning about ancient civilizations and playing Indiana Jones for three hours a week?
What many students find is that anthropology is a lot more than mummies and arrowheads- And while we're on the subject, the proper term for one of those little stone presents from the past is "projectile point." But don't sweat it if you forget and use the "A" word right now. You'll have plenty of time to pick up the disciplinary lingo and quite a bit of insight on homo sapiens sapiens over the next few months.
So let's begin.
What is anthropology?
100 level anth classes start every semester with that question. The answer is almost always a dodgy mishmash of, "It's a soft science except when it's not." or "It's an academic nexus point between the humanities and sciences." All of that is true, but does it really tell you what anthropology is?
Here is a definition we can live with: Anthropology is a multidisciplinary approach to the study of humans. To expand on that: It is the study of humanity as a biological species, as a conscious respondent to the environment, as a social creature, and as a creator of plastic arts, abstract expression, and patterned reaction.
It is not just digging up remains or observing living, breathing subjects or counting calories in and calories out. It is all of that and more.
The word "anthropology" is a term created from a mash up of the Greek words for "man," anthropos (ἄνθρωπος), and "study," logia (λογία). Some historians argue that the discipline started with the Ancient Greeks while others see anthropology as a much newer field of academic endeavor. We will take a look at the roots of anth in a future article. For now, know that this is where the term comes from.
You also need to know that anthropology is actually an umbrella term for five core fields that cover everything from that beastly common ancestor Betty White so gleefully described on Community to the new problems facing humanity as our energy needs continue to grow at an uncontrolled rate.
Here's a brief rundown of the fabulous five:
1.) Physical Anthropology: Monkeys may not be our uncles, but they do share some common traits and possibly even a small, lemur-like ancestor who scuttled around the warming, greening world left behind by the final wave of reptilian megafauna. I like to think of monkeys (and lemurs and aye-ayes and tarsiers and so on as rather distant and very cute little cousins.) Physical anthropologists explore the development of humanity from the very beginning to the possible stages we took to get to homo sapiens sapiens, all the way to the important things we still share with our taxonomic cohorts in the forests and how we might evolve in the future.
- Biological Anthropology
- Human Anatomy
- Population Genetics
- Human Ecology
2.) Archaeology: It's safe to say that archaeologists get into the field because they dig people. Actually, only a few of the subspecialties in this field deal with human remains on a regular basis. Most archaeologists prefer to deal with the stuff people leave behind. Traditionally, this has entailed lots of digging through soil and sand, but that is changing as some programs are studying old garbage dumps and the remains of large structures.
Here are a few sub-specialties in this category:
- Prehistoric Archaeology
- Historic Archaeology
- Classical Archaeology
- Biblical Archaeology
- Maritime Archaeology
- Cognitive Archaeology
3.) Cultural Anthropology: Most of the time when someone is talking about culture, they are referring to it in terms of it being something that happens to other people. Tribal attitudes about modes of dress, foodways, holidays, and family groups are culture when they happen to the Nuer and the Ojibway and the Basques. Guess what, Mijo? You have culture right in your own house. You're wearing it. You're speaking it. You're eating it. You're living in it. You're living it.
Here are some sub-specialties full of people who agree with me:
- Ecological Anthropology
- Economic Anthropology
- Social Anthropology
- Symbolic Anthropology
- Cognitive Anthropology
- Medical Anthropology
4.) Linguistics Say What? A linguistic study conducted at Stanford found that many Californians perceive themselves as having no discernible dialect. While their study was limited to a specific region, it would be interesting to see if people in other parts of the US feel the same way. Who you gonna call? Here's a list of possible areas of study where you might find someone who can tackle that research problem:
- Cognitive Linguistics
- Historical Linguistics
5.) Applied Anthropology: This core sub-field is better known as "The people who have actual jobs associated with their major." The people whose specialties fall into this category put the multi- in multidisciplinary. They work with ecologists, social workers, civil engineers, doctors, criminologists, and psychologists on a regular, sometimes daily basis.
- Forensic Anthropology
- Cultural Resource Management
- Applied Cultural Anthropology
- Urban Anthropology
Now that you've had a taste of what's in store, let me give you a little homework. Dig around these sites for a while. They're fun to look at and they'll prepare you for a deeper look into physical anthropology.
They're the Spitzer image of us! www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/human-origins-and-cultura...
You Cheetah, me Jane. http://www.janegoodall.org
Another eco-hero who started out as one of Leakey's "Ape Ladies" http://www.orangutan.org/dr-galdikas-bio
It's a family affair... http://www.leakey.com/
Betty White is one of her peeps! http://www.koko.org/index.php
A nifty article about one of my favorite animals: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/02/tarsiers-communicate-in-secret-s.html
Until next time, have fun exploring!
*copyright 2011 NBC/Universal