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The Rise of Physical Anthropology

We start our graduate core course in Physical Anthropology with a few articles on the history of the discipline, why it's historically called "physical" anthropology, & why it's now often termed "biological" anthropology. In the coming weeks, the students themselves will be posting their summaries of articles & discussing how the material relates to their own research interests. As we are a 4-field department, many of the students' primary interests are in archaeology, cultural anthropology, & linguistics (well, not this year, but in theory), but they have been encouraged to relate what they read to their own work, thus integrating the material at what I hope will be a deeper level than merely what they need to know for comps, & not to simply reiterate what the articles say about Physical Anthropology as a subdiscipline.

The first day, aside from listening to me monologue for 2 hours (I would make a good villain--easy for a superhero to escape from as I pontificate while they untie themselves--see clip from The Incredibles above for that reference), the class broke into two groups to summarize one article each, pull out its key points & one take-home message, & utilize those key points to compose an integrative question, such as might be used (& indeed, it might be!) on an exam. the first was Frank Spencer's "The Rise of Academic Physical Anthropology in the United States (1880-1980): A Historical  Overview" (1981, AJPA 56:353-364).

This was the group's outline of the key points of the article, though they began in the right-hand column, then continued in the left-hand column. In green is the question they composed.

A few things jumped out at me to which I'd also like to draw attention & elicit some opinions. On p. 354, there is discussion of the Bureau of American Ethnology being the "major breakthrough in the professinalization of American anthropology" until "the question of Indian policy was no longer a major political issue," at which point the establishment of academic anthropology became a major focus:

...the university offered not only a means for training but also for advancing scientific research...There were, however, several factors impeding its early advancement. One was that it had no prior claim to a place in the university curriculum (see Darnell, 1970a). Another was that its content overlapped (in varying degrees) with a number of well-established academic disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, history, and geography.

My question is, has any of this changed in over 100 years? What makes anthropology as a discipline & biological/physical anthropology as a subdiscipline important, relevant, & distinctive? What, exactly, is its place within a university curriculum?

The 2nd article discussed was Sherry Washburn's "The Strategy of Physical Anthropology" (1952, Anthropology Today), which the group who summarized it thought sufficiently covered in Table 1 (& that it was a little redundant after that):

Here is the question they proposed that synthesizes what they got out of this article:

By & large, I agree with the sentiments of the students, as many of these lessons have been internalized within our discipline with regards to NOT typologizing humans & the problems with the descriptive focus of Old Physical Anthropology reifying wrong-headed & destructive race concepts. However, I direct your attention to a spate of recent posts by bloggers in anthropology & (some scary ones by folks in) other fields via this tidy summary by Jason Antrosio that make it clear that, even within the "Ivory Tower," Washburn's position is far from "self-evident" to many. So, I would like to know the answer to the above question--students, answer your own question; anyone else reading this, please feel free to chime in. How have the changes from the Old to the New Physical Anthropology affected you personally, in terms of your research, lives, etc.?

14 thoughts on “The Rise of Physical Anthropology

  1. emmakoenig

    I think a key factor in the reason behind anthropology growing, first, in academia was because few non-anthropologists saw its value at the time, probably due to its overlap with so many other fields. Now I believe anthropology and its sub-disciplines, has found conduits for its use across the world.

    Antiquities departments, CRM firms

    Conservation firms and government agencies (here’s what one of my phys anth professors at CU, Dr. Herbert Covert, is working on:

    Heck my cousin just got back from an eight month long MISSION trip in Uganda and had to take Culture classes while there

    I also believe that anthropology’s overlap with so many fields is why it belongs in university curriculums today. Anthropology, as we know, is all about humans. Therefore, from biology physical anthropologists can focus on the biology of humans, instead of only studying written history archaeologists can piece together prehistory and histories not recorded, cultural anthropologists can then study contemporary histories (culture) i.e. things not written down yet, and then linguists can help us understand how we understand each other AND on top of all that the sub-disciplines can mix with each other and furthermore mix back with all the fields that overlap and influence them (hopefully all that makes sense… or at least you all understand what I mean). Anthropology is awesome in that we are human and we ask for knowledge from anywhere to further our understanding of ourselves!
    Ok now for a rant on the next question…

    As I said in class I have been working in Belize for four summers at the same Maya site. 2009 was the first year ANY research was done in this area of Belize; in fact people said “There is nothing up there”.

    So I have been faced, this weekend actually, with deciding/understanding what the project has found in four years and what it tells us about the site/area. We have found a fair amount of “stuff” but I am scared to make the jump to what it all means. For big picture ideas it feels like we have so little to go on. So I relate to the physical anthropologists of the 1950s, its easy to stay focused on finding more “stuff” (well and it doesn’t help that digging is AWESOME), measurements maybe is the good analog to this, but you have to start analyzing somewhere!

    So I started analyzing, well thinking. The first thing that came to my mind as a straightforward inference was trade. In the material culture we have found marine shell, jade, obsidian (Pachuca at that!) and granite all of which are not local therefore the people had to be getting it from somewhere or someone. Trade. So it may be simple and obviously can be expanded on but I started somewhere ☺.

    1. cdlynn

      Your comment reminds me of the remarks of the paleontology Ryosuke Motani who was an ALLELE speakerlast year when I had him sit in on the intro evolution course. He is a dinosaur paleontologist who studies things like nocturnality or whether a species was a deep-sea or shallow-sea dweller or a cruise-hunter or ambush-hunter. These are aspects of behavior that all provide inroads to thinking about metabolic processes but are aspects of dinosaurs that are so far back & for which there is so little evidence that I find it difficult to even conceive of how one would come up with these hypotheses. So I asked him, what is your approach to developing your hypotheses & research models & his answer struck me. He said, & I am paraphrasing, "basically I sit & think a lot." This seems counter-intuitive now, since we reject armchair approaches for the most part. I thought I wanted to hear about field methods & fossil collections & insights garnered from contextual information, but, in reality, much of our theoretical synthesizing comes from sitting around & thinking a lot. And of course reading & analyzing & all that. So perhaps an answer to my question is that anthropology affords us a unique way to think about these issues. What is unique about it?

  2. elizabethwilson

    Physical Anthropology has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. The readings only hinted at the influence of genetics, but the reliance on genetic research (phylogenies, etc.) has vastly changed the way we view human evolution. As stated, a strict morphological classification system is very ineffective. With the addition of in-depth genetic knowledge, we have dramatically improved the discipline, and set physical anthropology apart from the other subfields. Physical anthropology really melds together the hard science associated with archaeological and biological data with the observations from cultural. Yes, other subfields can observe a pattern, but in biological anthropology, we can track that pattern genetically and come up with a more concrete theory.

    On a different topic, Spencer's article notes that the surge of interest in physical anthropology tapered off in the 1970s likely because of the lack of job opportunities in academia. I think we still have a similar problem today. We tend to see (or maybe it's just me) an overwhelming amount of archaeology students and less of the other three subfields. I think this is due again to the few and very hard to get jobs in academia. While there are many other ways to use and anthropology degree this is the most obvious and often most desirable. However, with archaeology there are numerous lab and field job opportunities in cultural resource management (CRM). Do you think that the distribution of students among the subfields is always a reflection of the job market? What other factors could be shaping our sub-disciplines? Media? Recruitment?

    1. cdlynn

      It's a good question. I would put it back on you guys & ask, why did you choose the subdiscipline you have chosen? Ideology? Pragmatics? Was it an Indiana Jones movie, or the show Bones? Seriously, a lot of folks come to us as undergraduates because of media exposure & some stick around. My own media touchstone is slightly more obscure & only clearly influential in hindsight, but I loved "The Serpent & the Rainbow" when I was first in college & gravitated toward studing vodou & trance & the underlying mechanisms when I found anthropology, just like in that movie. But I consciously focused on biological anthropology when I was applying to grad schools because I had been out there on the job market for periods of time & my impression had been that more interesting NY Times job listings (which is where I was living at the time) specifically invoked training in biology than related to any of the other subdisciplines that interested me, though I had absolutely no training in archaeology at the time, so perhaps I would've seen things differently if I had. I can tell you that there is not necessarily a disparity in recruitment, at least in this department. We recruit commensurate with the resources we have to support students. I wonder how much the job market really affects us?

  3. eliseduffield

    Regarding the question posed about the Spencer article, I’m not sure how much has changed during the last 100 years. Obviously anthropology still overlaps many other disciplines but one of its main foci is the study of human culture. Other disciplines like psychology and sociology, with which anthropology was often associated in its early years, don’t take into account the effect that culture has on people. Physical anthropology, unlike biology or anatomy, takes into account culture and environment when studying human biology. This is what sets physical anthropology apart from other disciplines. This may seem self explanatory, but from a distance the two fields can seem very similar. This has definitely changed over time especially when we look at how much physical anthropology used to rely on only measurements and classification.

    When reading the Washburn article I was reminded of my own research as an archaeologist. Washburn argues that physical anthropology should shift its focus from measurements and classification to learning more about function and reasons behind differences in, say, skull measurements. It is important for archaeologists to keep this in mind when conducting their own research. I know when I began my study of glass trade beads I constantly reminded myself that just knowing their color and size would not tell me anything useful. I had to use that information and think about what their color, size, and site distribution might say about the people who used them. What could I say about dress and adornment and what could that mean about culture? How did that change over time? What could I tell about relations with Europeans and how did they change over time? Of course I was unable to answer all of these questions fully as it was only a year-long project. But the point remains the same—classification may be a good starting point but it will not tell you about function and reason for differences.

      1. eliseduffield

        I found that size generally increased over time as did the variety of colors available. We recognized 2 basic forms of beadwork and believe that over time there was a shift from one type to another. The first is embroidery of beaded designs within panels of contrasting color beads, sometimes incorporating thousands of beads. The second is a style of embroidery, involving far fewer beads, where individual beaded design elements were sewn directly onto the
        garment without the use of extensive background panels.This would explain why there is a general increase in bead size over time. The data showed that Catawba bead use changed dramatically during the latter half of the 18th century, a period during which Catawbas also underwent significant transformations in both internal socio-political organization and external military, diplomatic, and economic strategy. The next step would be to determine the extent to which differing practices in bead use are a reflection of these broader changes in Catawba life. But like I said, I was unable to get into these issues as much as I would have liked since the research was part of a semester long undergrad project.

  4. achsahdorsey

    How has anthropology changed in the last 100 years? Based on Spencer's article, not very much. Anthropology is one of those disciplines that can be related to any topic. I am often asked what can I do with anthropology and I find myself answering with a loud and obnoxious "anything!" I think that you can go into any field and find connections to anthropology. Especially with how connected the world is today - the internet and ability to travel across the world in a day has made the understanding of other cultures and beliefs extremely important. The US military was even hiring cultural anthropologists so soldiers can understand the customs of the foreign land they are being sent to.

    So why is having anthropology as its own discipline a good idea? Because anthropology teaches us to look at things through a different perspective. I know that anthropology has taught me that nothing is right and nothing is wrong. A concept that was hard to grasp at first because I tend to love having black and white distinctions but I had to face that there is a lot of gray, especially in medical anthropology. My version of western medicine is right for me. I think the ability to "walk in someone else's shoes" and fully understand their culture and environment will lead to less polarized political parties.

    How has the change from old to new anthropology effected me? It has allowed for myself to not only to take measurements but to also theorize about why differences in measurements exist. This theorizing has led to a lot of groundbreaking work in helping to explain all of the "why" questions. Why is something that is raised again and again by children, and I think this is something we should try and maintain into adulthood. It is the natural scientist in all of us trying to get out! Humans naturally want answers to all of these why questions, the change from old to new anthropology has opened the doors to be able to start finding the answers we seek.

    1. Christopher Lynn

      Coolest thing a student said to me once after teaching my very first course (in Physiological Psychology, incidentally, not Anthro) is that she now wonders "why?" about everything, which didn't occur to her before. I LOVE training people to be like annoying little kids!

  5. Kara Alspaugh

    From the several articles on the topic, I would say the field has certainly changed/progressed/evolved (har har). Sorry about the pun. Even if the concept of race/population is still a part of research (implicitly or explicitly), at least now (and then, when Washburn was the bossman of the AAA) its largely recognized as, well, racist. The biological and cultural overlap of this term I think is a prime example of the need for 4 field approaches to anthropological research.

    What makes anthropology important and relevant? The thing humans do best is talk about themselves, and anthropology makes it easier to make connections from yourself to other cultures, across a river or across an ocean. It also requires critical thinking about the relationships between people and cultures in the past, which, I think, increases critical thinking about relationships between people and cultures in the present (insert any major humanitarian or political cause here). What makes it distinctive? Anthropologists can study ANYTHING THEY WANT! So long as it relates to humans, and invariably, we find a way to make our wacky research interests (sex, digging in the dirt, voodoo) into legitimate problems to be solved.

    Biological anthropology is important, relevant, and distinctive because of its incorporation of the "hard sciences". The anthropological side of the discipline is given more credence because of its association with the periodic table, DNA, blood samples, and scalpels. I'm sure straight up biologists would disagree with this, but I think it provides a unique perspective on cultural problems when they are tied to real life issues like nutrition, etc.

    How have the changes from the Old to the New Physical Anthropology affected you personally, in terms of your research, lives, etc.?

    From what I can tell, it seems there was an overhaul in Anthropology as a whole around the same time as the Physical revolution, especially in archaeology. The European vs. American archaeological pedagogy (one is more or less observations v. anthropological interpretation) makes a huge difference in constructing research questions and data recording in the field. As I said in class, there is a huge difference between knowing that 20% of your ceramic assemblage is Coles Creek Incised, and knowing that across the river, there are only 3 sherds of the same type of ceramic. It lets us answer the questions of "Why is this here and not there?" and "What does that mean in terms of cultural interaction between the two sites?"

  6. Becca Leon

    Not much has changed in the last 100 years. Universities are still the best means for training and scientific research. Luckily, anthropology does have a claim in the university curriculum considering there are over 150 graduate schools offering degrees in anthropology in the United States (# found on Within a university curriculum, it is the field of anthropology’s place to provide a unique perspective from other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, history, etc. Anthropology in every sub-field provides a cultural perspective when looking at various topics whether it be diet and exercise promotion in the work place (something my husband is looking at in his field), or the first French settlement on the Gulf Coast (my area of interest). As anthropologist we try our best to see things through the eyes of those we are studying. We can help our fellow academics in trying to do this as well.

    Washburn’s article makes a very relevant point to my area of interest in that anthropologist need to be moving away from just focusing on measurements and classification and more towards function. This is necessary for physical anthropologists as well as archaeologists. As an archaeologist, I want to be able to measure and classify an artifact, but I also need to be able to describe its function and how it is used. I hope to be able to take Washburn’s advice when it comes to doing my own research as well.

  7. AshleyStewart

    I think Anthropology has definitely changed in the past 100 years. Though we do share areas of interest with other disciplines, the way we tackle these problems and look at these areas is completely different. Anthropology, as we all know, uses a holistic approach, whereas other fields do not. Historians, for example, can pour over maps, linear B tablets, and dead sea scrolls for years and only gather exactly what is presented before them, nothing more, nothing less. Archaeologists, however, can look at these same items, and then probe deeper (literally!) to uncover more forgotten truths. After uncovering walls, pits, burials, and various other artifacts, the archaeologists then face the problem of "What does it all mean?" To make sense of it all, they have to use all fields of Anthropology; linguistics for ancient writing, biological to determine what type of population they are dealing with, and cultural to determine what the artifacts were used for. Other disciplines only tackle part of this very large problem, whereas Anthropology happily harmonizes them all.

    I think to know where you are going, you have to know where you came from; basically you have to know yourself. I think this also applies to the human race. We need to know our beginnings, our ancestors, all the beings that came before. They lived full and interesting lives thousands of years ago, and they certainly deserve a look. LIke THESE guys!

    Physical anthropology can give us the scoop. How old they were, their sexes, and if they possibly died from some fatal lover's disease (if it happened to be one that left a marker on bones, anyway).

    And it lets us get a glimpse of the past much further back, to our earliest relatives. Through the remains, we can see how we evolved to be bipedal, how our crania changed over time, and much more. Aside from the archaeological aspect (its hard for me to get away from!), physical anthropology also tells us about ourselves today. It answers questions about nutrition and population, stress and growth - basically it combines hard science with culture, which no other discipline does.

    As to how the shift to New Physical Anthropology has affected me personally, it is easy to see in Archaeology. The questions we used to ask were normally quantity based and the answers statistical. It's all well and good to know that there are 48 people buried with trinkets and 300 without, but that only tells us so much. Archaeology has shifted and is beginning to ask "why" instead of just "how." Are those 48 of a higher class? What sort of trinkets were they? Is it religious? What position are they buried in? What percentage of the 48 were female? How old were they? Basically, instead of mere statistics and measurements, it now aims to answer broader questions about culture, ritual, and health.

  8. matthewgreenemeier

    In regards to relevancy, I think the individualistic nature of university departments makes it difficult to generalize how successfully anthropology programs have been adopted in the last century. At Auburn, for instance, the inclusion of anthropology with sociology and social work serves to seemingly emphasize the cultural, rather than the physical, aspects of the field; this hybridization also serves to highlight that the notion of the overlapping studies is alive and well. In my mind, anthropology serves as a unique avenue of synthesis, "the most humanistic of the sciences and scientific of the humanities," as the holistic approach is precisely why anthropology is a vital, distinctive discipline in its own right. The inclusiveness of the four primary subdisciplines (Linguistics, Cultural, Archaeology, Physical) serves to impart a recognition that a multiplicity of factors shape human beings, and that even if a person prefers a specific subfield, anthropology is about tracing together every available thread of evidence to gain a more telling perspective of the human experience.

    Personally, learning about some of the shifts between Old and New Anthropology genuinely encouraged me to adopt anthropology as my undergraduate major. You see, in high school, I had a brilliant teacher that conducted a splendid two week quest along the path of human evolution; however, as thought provoking and well-crafted as many of his lessons tended to be, he offered a evolutionary view that seemed far too typological, particularly in the development of racial distinctions, for my tastes. At first, this rebuffed me from the field significantly, but that teacher had stoked a spark, and I read more current material on physical anthropology (particularly Jared Diamond). Soon, I realized that my teacher was merely lecturing from outdated insights, and that modern research sought less to segregate humanity into subdivisions and more to explain the dynamics of co-adaption of populations in a dynamic and increasingly interconnected world. Couple this with a hilariously entertaining intro. course where I finally saw the true distinction between "Old" and "New" anthropology, and I was hooked.


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