Areas of Interest

The field of physical anthropology is composed of three main areas of interest: (1) primate studies, (2) paleoanthropology, and (3) human variation. Primate studies are concerned with defining humans in their naturally defined niche (earth) by examining living species of prosimians, monkeys, and apes (Order Primates). Primatologists primarily study and record the behavior, functional morphology, and anatomy of extant primates. Many physical anthropologists, such as A. Schultz (d. 1976) and Sherry Washburn (d. 2000) believed that primate studies held high promise for addressing questions of human origins, which in the early 1960s transformed the way in which physical anthropologists asked evolutionary questions. M. E. Morbeck, a physical anthropologist trained under Washburn at UC Berkeley, currently studies the skeletal remains of the famous Gombe chimpanzees to "read" from the bones the reproductive and survival life history characters recorded during their various life stages. She and her colleagues then compare their skeletal data with the detailed written behavioral life histories recorded by Jane Goodall and her Tanzanian staff.

There is an obvious connection between primate studies and human evolution, as Washburn believed, and tremendous interest in studying Gombe chimps and other primates was sparked in the 1960s by the world-renowned paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey

(d. 1972). As a conservationist, Leakey was concerned with documenting as much data as possible about the great apes before they would no longer exist. However, as a paleoanthro-pologist, he believed that the information learned from observing chimpanzees and gorillas could hold important clues to understanding our more ancient ancestors, in terms of social dynamics, types of environments encountered, and types of resources exploited.

Paleoanthropology concerns itself more with the fossil record of primates, and in particular, humans and their immediate ances-tors—the Family Hominidae. Paleoanthro-pologists commonly use an interdisciplinary approach when conducting fieldwork to study chronology, habitats, and material culture. Within this team, the physical anthropologist is responsible for interpreting the fossilized bits of bone recovered from a site and reporting on its diagnostic features and importance framed within the body of knowledge culled by other team members, and then in light of the rest of the fossil record. To prepare, one must comparatively study the hard tissue anatomy (osteology and dentition) of a wide variety of extant and extinct primates and other mammals in order to make functional, morphological, and evolutionary inferences of ancestral human and nonhuman primate life histories.

Two successful examples of accomplished paleoanthropological teams at work in the field include the one led by Rutgers University professors Susan Cachel and Jack Harris, both of whom have been put in charge of continuing the heuristically important paleo-anthropology research of the Lake Turkana, Kenya, Field School first started by Glynn Isaac and Richard Leakey in the late 1960s. Another group of well-known professors from the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) team, Donald Johanson and William Kimbel, have worked in the Afar region of Ethiopia for the past thirty years. Although Johanson is known worldwide for his key participation in the discovery of the fairly complete skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis named "Lucy," IHO's paleoanthropological research is responsible for the bulk of scientific discourse regarding hominid fossils recovered from sediments dated 3.5 to 2.0 million years ago in East Africa.

Studies of human variation, on the other hand, focus on the more recent chronological periods and primarily concern themselves with how and why humans differ biologically in today's world. Typically, this involves deciphering the immediate influence that culture elicits on human biological and mental development, or perhaps the extent to which culture acts as a buffer to natural selection among many modern human populations. Today these studies include human skeletal maturation and growth, population size and composition, epidemiology, and genetics. Extensions of human variability studies include forensic applications in legal cases when recovered osteological and dental remains are unquestionably human and the cause of death is unclear.

Physical anthropologist Harry Shapiro (d. 1990) was a true leader in the field with his work on the island survivors of the HMS Bounty, as well as documenting the effects of migration and the environment in modern human populations. A current leader of our field is Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution, who is an expert in Native American studies and spends much of his time documenting the morphological variation in Amerindian skeletal remains. Owsley is also an expert in forensic anthropology and is commonly called upon by the FBI to help in difficult cases. The field of genetics has sparked a great amount of awareness among physical anthropologists interested in human variation. Researchers are turning to DNA studies to answer both micro- and macroevo-lutionary questions of who peopled the Americas and when they did. Although these studies are in their infancy, they are continuously fine-tuning their methods and show high promise for future research in physical anthropology.

—Ken Mowbray

See also: Great Apes; Homo Sapiens; Human Evolution; Primates


Coon, Carton S. 1963. The Origin of Races. London: Jonathan Cape; Marks, John. 1995. Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and Culture. New York: Aldine de Gruyter; Morbeck, Mary Ellen, Alison Galloway, and Adrienne L. Zihlman. 1997. The Evolving Female: A Life-History Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Schwartz, Jeffrey, and Ian Tattersall. 2000. Extinct Humans. Boulder, CO: Westview; Ship-man, Pat. 1994. The Evolution of Racism. New York: Simon and Schuster; Spencer, Frank. 1997. The History of Physical Anthropology. 2 vols. New York: Garland; Tattersall, Ian. 1995. The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

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