Anthropology

The International History Project

date: 2001

 

The science that studies human cultures is called anthropology. It is a discipline that deals with the origins and development of human societies and the differences between them. The word anthropology is derived from two Greek words: anthropos meaning "man" or "human"; and logos, meaning "thought" or "reason." Anthropologists attempt, by investigating the whole range of human development and behavior, to achieve a total description of cultural and social phenomena.

The Spheres of Anthropology

The science of anthropology is divided into two major disciplines, physical anthropology and cultural anthropology. Each of these is basically an independent science, although specialists in one field frequently consult and cooperate with scholars in the other. Physical anthropology is generally classified as a natural science, while cultural anthropology is considered a social science.

Physical anthropology is concerned with the biological aspects of human beings. In trying to learn about racial differences, human origins, and evolution, the physical anthropologist studies fossil remains and observes the behavior of other primates. Primates are an order of mammals that includes human beings as well as apes and monkeys.

Cultural anthropology deals primarily with the growth of human societies in the world. It is a study of group behavior, the origins of religion, social customs and conventions, technical developments, and family relationships. A major subfield of cultural anthropology is linguistics, the study of the history and structure of language. Linguistics is a valuable tool of the anthropologist because it enables him to observe a people's system of communication and to learn the ideas by which they view the world. It also enables him to collect an oral history of the group being studied. Oral histories are constructed from a society's poems, songs, myths, proverbs, and folk tales.

Physical and cultural anthropology are connected by two other fields of study: archaeology and applied anthropology. In excavations, archaeologists find the remains of ancient buildings, tools, pottery, and other artifacts by which a past culture may be dated and described.

Applied anthropology makes use of the research done by physical and cultural anthropologists in order to help governments and other institutions form and implement policies for specific population groups. It may, for instance, aid governments of underdeveloped countries in showing backward peoples how to cope with the complexities of 20th-century civilization. It may also be used by governments in the formulation of social, educational, and economic policies for ethnic minorities within their borders. The work of applied anthropology is often done by specialists in the fields of economics, sociology, history, and psychology.

Because anthropology is such a wide-ranging discipline, investigating as it does every facet of all human societies, it must draw upon research done in other disciplines to form its conclusions. Among these disciplines are history, geography, geology, biology, anatomy, genetics, economics, psychology, and sociology, along with the highly specialized tasks of linguistics and archaeology already mentioned.

The Problem of Terminology

Different terms are used to describe the fields of anthropology in the United States and Europe. While in the United States the term anthropology is used to name the whole subject, in Europe the name ethnology is applied. (Ethnology is defined as the science that studies the many races of mankind-- their beginnings, characteristics, differences, and distribution.) What is called "cultural anthropology" in the United States is also termed "ethnology" in European countries. The term physical anthropology is used in both parts of the world.

The subareas of cultural anthropology in the United States are three: historical anthropology (or ethnology), prehistory (or prehistoric archaeology), and linguistics (or linguistic anthropology). In Europe the subareas are: ethnology (in the strictest sense as the historical description and comparison of races), prehistory (or prehistoric ethnology), and linguistics (or linguistic ethnology).

PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY

The science of physical anthropology has focused to a great extent on determining the place of human beings in nature, on comparing them with lower primates, and on interpreting the physical differences among the races. In pursuing its goals, physical anthropology has used the sciences of comparative anatomy, evolution, and genetics.

Early Investigations

Modern physical anthropology began taking shape in the first half of the 19th century when there arose a great interest in studying the origins of mankind, the biological relationships between the races, and the changeability of man as an animal species. In working out their theories, anthropologists devised a framework called the "great chain of being." This was a model of nature that arranged all species in a hierarchical order, from the lowest to the highest. The point of this notion was to discover if there was steady progression from lower life forms up through the lower primates (apes and monkeys) to human beings. Since no continuous progression to human beings could at first be found, scientists theorized that there must be a "missing link" between the lower primates and man.

In order to classify and distinguish between the apes, monkeys, and races of man, the anthropologists have used comparative anatomy, measuring brain size, cranial capacity, arm and leg length, and height. They have also noted the color of skin and personality traits as clues for putting animals and races in their proper order.

The work of most 19th-century anthropologists was hampered by ignorance in a number of areas, including an ignorance that has since been dissipated by geology, astronomy, archaeology, and the biological sciences. The age of the Earth was unknown. Many people, in accordance with the religious teachings of the time, believed it to be about 6,000 years old. Religious teaching also suggested that all species were created at one time, thus precluding any evolution from lower to higher forms. The first archaeological discoveries indicating the very ancient origins of mankind were not made until the middle of the 19th century, and then many anthropologists ignored or disputed them. The first major breakthrough for anthropologists came in the natural sciences when in 1859 Charles Darwin published his 'Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection'.

Evolution, as first described by Darwin, was a crucial concept for anthropologists in reaching an understanding of the origins of man. The essential impact for the evolution of man was the idea of natural selection, although many decades passed before its implications were appreciated or employed. Darwin showed that nature selects those forms that are better adapted to a particular geographic zone and way of life. The notion of adaptation implied that organisms changed slowly over millions of years. It also disqualified any need for a "missing link," although this theory persisted well into the 20th century. The missing link had not been considered to be a product of evolutionary development but a creature placed between man and ape in the natural order of things

Modern Physical Anthropology

A major shift in the approach to physical anthropology occurred at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of genetic principles and of the ABO blood groups. Genetics was actually rediscovered. In 1865 an Austrian monk, Gregor J. Mendel, had formulated the first laws of heredity and laid the foundation of the science of genetics. His findings were almost entirely ignored at the time. In 1900 three other European botanists arrived at the same conclusions that Mendel had published 35 years earlier, and in researching the literature on the subject they found his work.

Genes are the units within sex cells such as the sperm and egg that transmit specific hereditary traits from one generation to the next. The study of inherited traits has become essential to anthropologists in seeking to understand human variations and differences between races. Genetics has modified the theory of progressive evolution somewhat, because it has been shown by experiment that there may be genetic reversals--that is, reversions back to traits and characteristics thought to be discarded in the hereditary process.

Early in the 20th century another Austrian, a physician named Karl Landsteiner, discovered the blood groups, or types, known as O, A, B, and AB. This led anthropologists to investigate blood differences among the races. They have noted that certain races and subraces have particular distributions of one or another blood type. This has enabled scientists to categorize the races and, since blood types are genetically determined, to trace early migration patterns.

Dating is crucial for physical anthropologists, as well as for geologists and archaeologists. It is a method that allows them to determine how old something is--whether it be a layer of rocks, a human-like fossil, or a collection of pottery.

There are two kinds of dating: relative and absolute. Relative dating shows the order in which events occurred but does not tell exactly when they occurred. Methods of absolute dating indicate with a fair degree of precision how old something is. Of the two types of dating, the

determination of relative age relationships came into use first. Absolute dating depends upon technological advances that have been made in the 20th century.

Geologists and archaeologists have long used relative dating methods to determine the approximate age of the Earth and of fossils and artifacts. Geologists examine the many strata of the Earth's crust to determine the intervals of time from one layer of rock to another. Archaeologists also use the principle of layering to verify the sequence of human cultures.

Another method of determining relative age is fluorine dating. It is based upon the principle that fossil bones absorb the element fluorine from the soil in which they are buried. The longer they are buried, the more fluorine the bones will contain. Determining the amount of fluorine is often not a practical means of relative dating because it requires many samples from an immediate area.

Absolute, or chronometric, dating attempts to pinpoint when a given rock, fossil, or other object reached its present condition. The basic method for determining absolute age is called radiometry-- measuring the rate of radioactive decay of an element. This can be done with a high degree of accuracy, though no method is infallible without a great deal of corroborative testing.

One of the types of absolute dating that has been used by physical anthropologists is potassium-argon dating. It is a method of determining the time of origin of igneous rocks and sediments--and thereby the fossils found within them--by measuring the amount of decay of potassium-40, a radioactive isotope of the element potassium, into the stable isotope argon-40, one of the rare gases. The half-life of potassium-40, which is the time it will take one half of any quantity of it to decay into potassium, is 1,265,000,000 years. Potassium-argon dating has been used to measure the ages of a wide variety of objects up to 4,500,000,000 years old. The accuracy of potassium-argon dating declines, however, for dates more recent than about a million years ago. Such dating techniques applied to the remains and surroundings of ancient human beings have constantly pushed back the estimated age of mankind. By the end of the 20th century, the origins of humankind and its ancestors were believed to date back to at least 3 million years ago. This is based on the dating of a number of remarkable discoveries of fossil remains made in the Great Rift Valley of Africa.

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY

Cultural anthropologists are concerned with the origin and development of human societies in all their complexity. Cultural anthropology attempts to devise theories to explain the origin of aspects of various human cultures, each of which has unique features as well as characteristics in common with other societies.

Cultural anthropology has given rise to various schools of thought since the 19th century. Among them are evolutionism, historical particularism, diffusionism, functionalism, structuralism, and neo-evolutionism.

Evolutionism

The theory of biological evolution was first formally presented by Charles Darwin in 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859. Darwin argued that man is an animal and has many of the same instincts and needs as do other social animals. Darwin stated that successful species adapted to changing environments, and that through a process he called natural selection only the most adaptable individuals or groups survive.

Nineteenth-century anthropologists applied these theories to their cultural studies. They believed that all societies develop in a universal sequence, and that all humans possess the same thought processes and basic mental structure. According to Lewis H. Morgan of the United States, the three basic stages that all societies pass through are savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Each of these stages, he believed, is characterized by specific technological developments.

A related 19th-century approach that applied the theory of evolution to society focused on different stages of religious thought. Edward Burnett Tylor, an English anthropologist, argued that these stages are animism, or a belief in the soul and in spirits; polytheism, or a belief in more than one god; and monotheism, or a belief in one god. Tylor also suggested that some groups could skip particular stages in their cultural development by learning from other cultures.

Another kind of cultural evolution was proposed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This theory defined a society by its method of producing goods and services and presented a developmental sequence that included necessary social conflict

Cultural evolutionists analyzed aspects of modern cultures that seemed to have survived from previous stages. They developed a number of points of view that are considered valuable contributions to anthropology. Among these are the concept of culture itself, the methods of comparing different cultures, and concepts for the study of social organizations.

Two major works in the field of anthropology, Sir James Frazer's 'Golden Bough' (1890) and Ernest Crawley's 'Mystic Rose' (1902), contained vast amounts of research on primitive and traditional societies and tended to reinforce the theories of evolutionists. Both were encyclopedic collections of customs, religious and magical practices, and much other curious data. Evolutionists saw evidence of a sequence of magical, religious, and scientific thought that seemed to be part of the development of every human society.

Historical Particularism

By the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists in Great Britain, Germany, and the United States were questioning the belief that all societies developed in much the same way. They suggested that each culture was unique because each had its separate geography, history, creativity, and degree of contact with its neighbors.

One of the first to reject evolutionism was a German-born American anthropologist, Franz Boas. Boas emphasized the importance of fieldwork and observation. Fieldwork involves seeking information about a particular group's behavior by gathering data and recording observable behaviors in that group's natural environment.

Boas believed that every aspect of a culture should be recorded and that the anthropologist studying a native culture should not only learn its language but should attempt to think like its people. Boas emphasized the importance of collecting information that described the individuals and their interrelationships in a particular culture. Such information was gathered through the recording of life histories and folklore, and then connecting these details with archaeological and historical data. Boas also believed that similarities among different cultures were the result of similar outside influences rather than to the similarity in thought processes or to any universal laws of development. He stressed the importance of analyzing a culture within its historical context.

Boas is known as the founder of the culture history school of anthropology, which dominated American cultural anthropology for much of the 20th century. Anthropologists who followed Boas' theories included Ruth Benedict, Alfred L. Kroeber, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir.

Diffusionism

A group of Austro-German anthropologists, led by Fritz Graebner and Wilhelm Schmidt, rejected 19th- century evolutionism in favor of a belief that a few core cultures influenced all later societies. This diffusion, or spreading, of culture traits was believed to be the basic force in human development. By analyzing the cultural behaviors and aspects of a society, a diffusionist believed that he could determine from which core culture that society derived its civilization. Because the diffusionists called the original ancient civilizations "kulturkreise" (or "cultural clusters") they were also known as the kulturkreise school of anthropology.

A British group of diffusionists, led by Grafton Elliot Smith and William J. Perry, argued that only one civilization was responsible for all cultural development. They believed that the civilization fitting their theory was ancient Egypt and that ideas such as irrigation, kingship, and navigation were spread from the ancient civilization along the Nile throughout the world by voyagers who were seeking precious jewels. This theory was called the Manchester, or heliocentric (sun-centered) school of thought. The metaphor of the sun suggested that all cultures radiated from but a single source.

Although the diffusionist approach to anthropology was dominant in early 20th-century Europe, it was thought an inadequate point of view by later scholars. They claimed that it disregarded important geographical and psychological differences in culture.

Functionalism

After World War I a school of thought developed that rejected historical approaches to the study of cultures. A leading proponent of this theory was Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish-born British anthropologist. He believed that to understand a culture one must perceive its totality and the interrelationship of all its parts, much as if culture were a machine and the individual traits the cogs and gears that made it operate. Culture was to be interpreted at one point in time. The age of the elements composing it were of no importance. What mattered was the function the traits performed at any given time. Functionalism provided the field of anthropology with valuable contributions in the analysis of family, kinship roles, rites of passage, and political organization.

Closely related to functionalism was a theory proposed by the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict in the 1930s. She believed that each culture had, over the ages, given its members a unique orientation toward reality that determined how members saw and processed information from their environment. She believed it was necessary to study such mental or psychological conditioning to see how it functioned in a given society.

Structuralism

Another influential 20th-century school of thought is structuralism, which is similar in many ways to functionalism. Its leading early proponents were the British anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Claude Levi-Strauss, a Belgian-born French ethnologist. They asserted that by taking all of the many aspects of a society into consideration one could arrive at a clear structural description, or model, of it--a model that the members of the society themselves are not fully aware of.

Radcliffe-Brown stated that all aspects of a society exist in order to maintain the social structure of the society. Levi-Strauss was convinced that a culture, like a language, has a structure that can be similarly analyzed. The model that the anthropologist constructs is correct when it can account for all the observed data on a given society. One of the difficulties with structuralism is that it presumes a static condition and may find difficulty in taking historical changes into account.

Neo-evolutionism

Since World War II there has been a revival of interest in evolutionism. The American anthropologist Julian Steward believed that similar stages of development are apparent in the cultural histories of various civilizations. His theory, termed "multilinear evolution" or "specific evolution," states that such similarities develop quite independently. A comparison of the sequences of change in sets of cultures should reveal regular patterns of change that are common to all of them.

Another American, Leslie White (1900-75), viewed culture as an inevitable natural process that develops from mankind's increasing ability to harness energy and use it effectively. The social and psychological makeup of a culture is therefore determined by its technology. From the work of Steward and White has come the term cultural ecology. This school of thought states that because a culture tends to reflect efficient use of the environment, similar environments will inevitably produce cultures that are similar.

HISTORY

At least since the earliest times of the Greeks the study of mankind has been a major intellectual endeavor, a subject for speculation and for investigation. Philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, speculated on what it meant to be human and on what mankind's place was in nature and in the universe. Herodotus, on the other hand, was an investigator. In Western society he is considered the first historian and the first ethnologist.

In the 5th century BC he traveled over much of the known world, to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Thrace, Macedonia, Scythia, and eastward into what is now southern Ukraine and Russia. The observations he made on his travels were published in his 'History'. Along with his narrative of the Persian Wars and other events involving the Greek city-states, he described the customs, social habits, religions, and political structures of many of the peoples he visited on his travels.

There were other ancient precursors of anthropology. In the 1st century BC the Roman philosopher Lucretius, in his 'On Nature', discoursed on the origin of religion, the arts, language, the division of labor, and the differences between the sexes. In AD 98 the Roman historian Tacitus wrote his 'Germania', an anthropological study of the Germanic tribes to the north of the Roman Empire.

In the Middle Ages the Christian religion dominated the thought of Europe. Mankind was not viewed as existing for itself. Mankind's status was that of creatures of God whose ideal behavior reflected religious values. During the period called the Renaissance a change in attitude took place. Poets, painters, and scholars gained a renewed interest in the classical writings of Greece and Rome. They rediscovered the notion of studying mankind for its own sake.

It was during the 16th century that the term anthropology was coined and used by philosophy teachers in German universities. Anthropology was understood to be the systematic study of man as a physical and moral being. From the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century anthropology remained within the province of philosophy. Among the many writers who reflected upon the nature of man were the Frenchmen Michel de Montaigne, Jean Bodin, Rene Descartes, and Blaise Pascal; the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza; the English philosophers John Locke and David Hume; and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

With the work of the French naturalist Georges Buffon the divergence of anthropological studies from philosophy began to take place. He devoted two volumes of his 44-volume 'Histoire naturelle' (Natural History), published in the years 1749 to 1804, to man as a zoological species. Since that time anthropology has continued to diversify its approaches. Scholars have also maintained the necessity of using data from other sciences in their work.

Physical anthropology developed as a separate science under the influence of Johann F. Blumenbach in Germany. He was the first scholar to divide humanity into races. By the middle of the 19th century geologists and archaeologists had thrown a good deal of light on the age of the Earth and of human societies. For the first time, anthropologists saw the possibility of tracing mankind's origins into the very remote past.

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