History

Its origin can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when Linnaeus included humans in his book Systema Naturae in 1735 with minimal descriptions at the species level. In the 1770s and 1780s, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach fathered this field, with his anatomical circumscription of modern human variability into five populations, or races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malaysian. During the nineteenth century it continued to blossom, mainly out of concern among natural historians interested in delineating the mechanisms by which biological variation arises. Additionally, tremendous doubt was raised among natural historians whether dogma presented by biblical literalists provided tenable interpretations of how humans came to exist on earth, especially in light of the numerous fossil mammal (and human) discoveries in sediments beneath and alongside those containing evidence of ancient cultures. Fortunately, the more common Lamarckian paradigm of evolution would soon shift because of two events: (1) the 1859 announcement of Charles Darwin's—and to some extent Alfred Wallace's—proposal of natural selection as a mechanism for explaining how species gradually change over time; and (2) the 1864 naming of an extinct human ancestor. In 1856, miners discovered a fossil human inside the Feldhofer Grotto in the Neander Valley, Germany. This was a critical juncture for physical anthropology, because Darwin's research reintroduced earlier concepts proffered by the geologist Charles Lyell and others, concepts that conceptualized the idea of deep time and the similarity of processes at work then and now. It was also important because a friend of Darwin's, Thomas Huxely, would spend the rest of his life educating lay people about natural selection and its influence on all living creatures, especially humans. In effect, Huxely's research laid down the foundation for physical anthropology to grow and develop.

Discoveries of fossilized humans now meant that evolutionary concepts could be applied to modern humans. Lyell, who was once a firm believer that God was in some way responsible for life on earth, abandoned many of his theological notions and accepted Darwin's work. After examining what remained of the Feldhofer Grotto, Lyell would soon write a popular book on the geological antiquity of man. With deep time and evolution gaining acceptance, the only thing missing was a direct mechanism of inheritance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the field of genetics would fill in the gaps and influence most of the evolutionary sciences, including the field of physical anthropology. However, the field's research interests clearly bifurcated in ideology at that time. Most physical anthropologists remained content with measuring head shapes, describing skin and hair types, blood types, and overall body shapes, but others were interested in the eugenics movement. Many years would pass and many decent people would be captured by the movement, earmarked as genetically challenged, and eventually sterilized. Although this was happening in many U.S. neighborhoods, physical anthropologists were concentrating on building comparative skeletal collections in order to get a handle on the range of morphological variation among human populations. Fortunately, the eugenics movement ended, and genetic studies in modern human and nonhuman primates are now used to address the origin and evolution of humanity and not to create a perfect race. Today the field of physical anthropology does not tolerate racist ideology, but we are left to sort out the legal and ethical ramifications generated by the turn-of-the-century collectors of human skeletal material.

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