Anthropology For Dummies
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What is anthropology? The study of humanity, or anthropology, starts with the origin and evolution of humanity. Other elements key to the study of anthropology are human modernity (anatomical and behavioral); defining culture and cultural universals; how humans feed themselves (subsistence) and the influence of subsistence on social organization; and human language.

anthropology concept drawing © ivector /

How anthropologists group the early hominids

By studying early hominids (large, bipedal primates) that date back to millions of years, anthropologists can track the development of the human race. When exploring anthropology, keep these important points in mind:

  • The evolutionary process shapes species by replication, variation, and selection, leading to adaptation.

  • Humans are one of roughly 200 species of the Primate order, a biological group that’s been evolving for about 60 million years.

  • Hominids appear (only in Africa) by at least 4 million years ago with the following adaptive characteristics: bipedalism (habitually walking on two legs), encephalization (larger brains than expected for their body size), small teeth (smaller teeth than expected for their body size—the canines in particular).

The following table summarizes what anthropology has discovered about the main groups of early hominids.

Hominid Group, Diet, and Tool Use Some Genera and Species Included Fossil Finds Dates Evolutionary Fate
Gracile australopithecines: omnivorous diet with little tool
Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus
A. afarensis in Ethiopia, and A. africanus at
many sites in South and East Africa
Over 4 million years ago (A. afarensis) to about 2
million years ago (later A. africanus)
A. afarensis probably ancestral to A. africanus;
A. africanus probably ancestral to early Homo
Robust australopithecines: more herbivorous diet with little or
no tool use.
Australopithecus aethiopicus, Australopithecus
A. aethiopicus and A. boisei in East Africa,
A. robustus in South Africa
Over 2 million years ago (A. aethipoicus)
to about 1 million years ago (late A. robustus)
Extinction around 1 million years ago
Early Homo: omnivorous diet with more animal tissue
consumption and survival relying on tool use.
Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, earliest Homo
Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and Koobi Fora, Kenya Earliest Homo around 2.5 million years ago; clearly
H. erectus by 1.8 million years ago
Evolved into H. erectus by 1.8 million years ago

Anthropology and human modernity

Modern humans have physical and behavioral differences from ancient humans. Keep these in mind when thinking about “what it is to be human”:

  • Anatomical modernity: Having anatomical characteristics indistinguishable from modern, living humans. Appearing by 100,000 years ago (in Africa), these characteristics include a larger brain (averaging 1,450 cubic centimeters, or about four soda cans), a larger body overall, and the presence of a chin rather than a receding jaw.
  • Behavioral modernity: Behaving in ways that are indistinguishable from modern humans. This appears by 100,000 to 50,000 years ago (again, in Africa) and includes symbolism (the use of one thing to represent another thing), complex language (with complex grammar), and complex tool use (such as the use of symmetrical tools and tools made from several raw materials brought together). The most striking manifestation of early behavioral modernity are cave art and rock art, completely unknown in the rest of the animal kingdom.

Modern humans dispersed to Southeast Asia and Australia by 50,000 Before Present (BP), Europe by 45,000 BP, the New World by 15,000 BP, and the Pacific and Arctic by 1,000 BP.

Culture and cultural universals in anthropology

Anthropologists don’t just study the evolution of human beings, they also learn about their cultures, how cultures develop, and how cultures shape human behavior. If you need to refresh your memory about culture, like what it is and how it guides human behavior, take a look at these aspects:

  • Culture is a learned set of ideas and rules about appropriate behavior shared by a group; it’s passed on from one generation to the next not by the genes but with language.

  • Although the contents of each culture are different, each culture has specific ideas of language (a way to communicate), ethics (concepts of right and wrong), social roles (rights and responsibilities per gender and age class), the supernatural (the realm of supernatural beings), styles of bodily decoration (styles normally indicate identity), family structure (marriage customs and rules for inheritance), sexual regulation (incest taboos and marriage customs) and food preferences (ideas of what’s appropriate for consumption at various social gatherings).

Anthropology of subsistence and social organization

Humanity has practiced all kinds of ways of subsistence, or getting food. This table shows different modes of subsistence and the affects they’ve had on social organization.

Band Tribe Chiefdom State/Civilization
Subsistence: Foraging Foraging/pastoralism Horticulture or (rarely) foraging Agriculture
Mobility: High Medium/cyclic Low Lowest
Food storage: Little: days to months Little: weeks to months Medium: seasons to a few years High: reliance on stored foods
Emphasis on property: Low but present Medium: among pastoralists, herded animals are property of
High: elites own special items High: major differences in material possessions by economic
Attitudes toward social ranking: Low: little stratification and generally equal access to
resources for all members
Medium: among pastoralists, families with more animals have
higher rank
High: hereditary elite class exists, but has more power to
coerce than command
Very high: resources allotted depend on social rank
Population: 10–150 Less than 200 Low hundreds to 1,500 Tens of thousands to millions or billions
Examples: Paiute of North American Great Basin, Inuit of Arctic
Maasai of East Africa (cattle herders), Saami of Arctic
Scandinavia (reindeer herders)
Maori of New Zealand, Vikings of medieval Scandinavia Ancient Egypt and Greece, Shang China, Maya (Mexico and
Guatemala), United States

What Is linguistic anthropology?

Language is the system humans use to communicate. Linguistic anthropology studies human language, and these points highlight humanity’s distinct way of transmitting information:

  • Human infants aren’t born with language already in mind, but all healthy infants are born hardwired to acquire any of the uniquely complex rules (grammar) of any human language.

  • Each language has a unique grammar, a complex set of rules that tell how to properly order the words in a sentence; children normally learn the outline of this grammar by about 3 years of age.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Dr. Cameron M. Smith has searched for early human fossils in East Africa, studied traditional hunting methods in Arctic Alaska, and more. His research has been published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology and The Journal of Field Archaeology, and he is the author of An Atlas of Human Prehistory.

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