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Biological anthropology (also known as bioanthropology[1] and physical anthropology) is a branch of anthropology that studies the physical development of the human species. It plays an important part in paleoanthropology (the study of human origins) and in forensic anthropology (the analysis and identification of human remains for legal purposes). It draws upon human anthropometrics (body measurements), human genetics (molecular anthropology) and human osteology (the study of bones) and includes neuroanthropology, the study of human brain evolution, and of culture as neurological adaptation to environment.

In two centuries biological anthropology has been involved in a range of controversies. The quest for human origins was accompanied by the evolution debate and various racial theories. The nature and nurture debate became a political battleground. There have been various attempts to correlate human physique with psychological traits such as intelligence, criminality and personality type, many of which proved themselves mistaken and are now obsolete.


Paul Broca

Pierre Paul Broca

The nomenclature of the field is not exact: the relevant subdivision of the American Anthropological Association is the Biological Anthropology Section while the principal professional organization is the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The term "biological anthropology" emerged with the rise of genetics and incorporates genetic markers as well as primate ethology.

  • Human behavioral ecology, the study of behavioral adaptations (foraging, reproduction, ontogeny) from the evolutionary and ecologic perspectives, (see behavioral ecology). Human adaptation, the study of human adaptive responses (physiologic, developmental, genetic) to environmental stresses and variation.
  • Human biology, an interdisciplinary field of biology, biological anthropology, nutrition and medicine, concentrates upon international, population-level perspectives on health, evolution, adaptation and population genetics.
  • Paleopathology, the study of disease in antiquity. This study focuses not only on pathogenic conditions observable in bones or mummified soft tissue, but also on nutritional disorders, variation in stature or the morphology of bones over time, evidence of physical trauma, or evidence of occupationally derived biomechanic stress.
  • Forensic anthropology, the application of osteology, paleopathology, archaeology, and other anthropological techniques for the identification of modern human remains or the reconstruction of events surrounding a person's death.
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Franz Boas

Scientific physical anthropology began in the 18th century with the study of racial classification.[2] In the 1830s and 1840s, physical anthropology was prominent in the debate about slavery, with the scientific, monogenist works of the British abolitionist James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848) opposing those of the American polygenist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851). The first prominent physical anthropologist, the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) of Göttingen, amassed a large collection of human skulls.

In the latter 19th century French physical anthropologists, led by Paul Broca (1824–1880), focused on craniometry while the German tradition, led by Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), emphasized the influence of environment and disease upon the human body. American thought evolved the “four-field approach”, skeletons, artefacts, language and culture (ways of life) using the remains of North American people.

In 1897 Columbia University appointed Franz Boas (1858–1942) as a physical anthropologist for his expertise in measuring schoolchildren and collecting of Inuit skeletons. From his German education and training Boas emphasized the mutability of the human form and minimized race (then a biology synonym) in favor of culture. Ales Hrdlicka (1869–1943), a physician, studied physical anthropology in France under Leonce Manouvrier before working at the Smithsonian Institution from 1902.

File:Ales hrdlicka.jpg

Earnest Hooton (1887–1954), a Classics PhD from the University of Wisconsin, entered anthropology as an Oxford Rhodes Scholar under R. R. Marett and the anatomist Arthur Keith. Harvard University hired Hooton in 1913: he trained most American physical anthropologists of the coming decades, beginning with Harry L. Shapiro and Carleton S. Coon and struggled to differentiate physical anthropology from racism.[3] There was much intellectual continuity with Germans such as Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz and Erwin Baur.[4]

In 1951 Sherwood Washburn, a Hooton alumnus, introduced a "new physical anthropology",[5] withdrawing from the study of racial typology to concentrate upon the study of human evolution, moving away from classification towards evolutionary process. Anthropology expanded to comprehend paleoanthropology and primatology.[6]

Human biologyEdit

Human biology is an interdisciplinary academic field of biology, biological anthropology, nutrition and medicine which focuses on humans; it is closely related to primate biology, and a number of other fields.

Biomedical anthropologyEdit

Biomedical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology, predominantly found in U.S. academic and public health settings, that incorporates perspectives from the biological and medical anthropology subfields. In contrast to much of medical anthropology, it does not generally take a critical approach to biomedicine and Western medicine. Instead, it seeks to improve medical practice and biomedical science through the holistic integration of cross-cultural or biocultural, behavioral, and epidemiological perspectives on health. As an academic discipline, biomedical anthropology is closely related to human biology.

Currently, the only accredited degree program in biomedical anthropology is at Binghamton University [2]. Other anthropology departments, such as that of the University of Washington [3], offer biomedical tracks within more traditional biological or biocultural anthropology programs.


Typology in anthropology is the categorization of the human species by physical traits that are readily observable from a distance such as head shape, skin color, hair form, body build and stature. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries anthropologists used a typological model to divide people from different ethnic regions into races, (e.g. the Negroid race, the Caucasoid race, the Mongoloid race, the Australoid race, and the Capoid race which was the racial classification system as defined in 1962 by Carleton S. Coon).[7]

The typological model was built on the assumption that humans can be assigned to a race based on similar physical traits. However, the typological model in anthropology is now thoroughly discredited,[8] and current mainstream thinking is that the morphological traits are due to simple variations in specific regions, and are the effect of climatic selective pressures.[4] This debate is covered in more detail in the article on race.


Somatotypology is the study of somatotypes or constitutional types. The objective is to produce a classification system that enables an observer to make determinations of the susceptibiity of a person of a given type to physical or psychological diseases or disease generally. The Carus and Kretschmer typologies are examples as well as Sheldon's constitutional theory of personality.

Racial mappingEdit

Racial Mapping is the use of cartography to identify and situate racial groups[9] using maps to highlight, perpetuate, and naturalize the differences of race through both literal and metaphorical means,[10][11] mapmakers create a common knowledge by displaying specific data as representative the real world, and construct racial identity by framing, situating, and defining what race is.[12][13]

As a result, there is a long tradition of cartography being used as a tool to support social Darwinism, which seeks to promote specific groups of people as superior to others.[9][14][15]

The basis for racial mapping, at least in the western world, goes back to the Hellenistic tradition of mapping, where exotic “other” people were purported to live in far off lands.[9] These “others” were usually based upon the writings of Herodotus, and later Greek cartographers spatially situated these groups in their maps. The use of maps to identify otherness was also present Medieval Europe through the use of mappaemundi. These maps displayed “monstrous races” along the periphery to denote the separation between the settled (Europe) and the unknown.[16] While these old maps are originally seen as representation of Christian proselytizing influence, they also exude an ideal of European supremacy. European mapmakers continued this tradition into the colonial era, using the maps to replace indigenous ideas of identity and spatial distribution. These maps, and others, were used to legitimize European imperialism through the use of racial delineation. Europeans were bringing their supposedly superior race, and the knowledge that went with that, to the world through their empires, and those empires were situated along a spatial understanding made possible through maps.[12][13][15][17]

Racial ideology is not to be found entirely in maps of colonialization, it is also seen within the biopolitics of the early 19th century with the rise of the “population” as a unit of analysis, and a governmental concern with health and crime that led attempts to understand, and categorize, the population.[18][19][20] The effects of grouping individuals into populations and having identities for the population, as opposed to the individual, presents the ability of a government to categorize people based upon knowledge. Many times this knowledge, and the categorization was done using cartography.[19] Following the end of World War I, many of Europe’s borders were redrawn, often influenced by racial and eugenic ideologies.[19] The decision behind this was that, “…territories remain stable and peace be guaranteed,”.[21] The American Geographical Society assisted in the redrawing of Europe's map through the project known as the Inquiry, and in doing so helped to determine what the territory and identity of people in Europe would be. Consequently, the redrawing of Europe’s map after World War I was directly influenced by the knowledge of racial purity.

See alsoEdit

Notable biological anthropologistsEdit

References Edit

  2. Marks, J. (1995) Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  3. Hooton, E. A. (1936) “Plain Statements About Race”. Science, 83:511-513.
  4. Baur, E., Fischer, E., and Lenz, F. (1931) Human Heredity, Eden Paul and Cedar Paul, translators. New York: Macmillan,
  5. Washburn, S. L. (1951) “The New Physical Anthropology”, Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II, 13:298-304.
  6. Haraway, D. (1988) “Remodelling the Human Way of Life: Sherwood Washburn and the New Physical Anthropology, 1950–1980”, in Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology, of the History of Anthropology, v.5, G. Stocking, ed., Madison, Wisc., University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 206-259.
  7. Coon, Carleton S. The Origin of Races (1962)
  8. O'Neil, Dennis. Palomar College. "Biological Anthropology Terms." 2006. May 13, 2007. [1]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Winlow, Heather. (forthcoming). Mapping Race and Ethnicity. In The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, edited by N. T. a. R. Kitchen. Oxford: Elsevier.
  10. Kobayashi, A., and L. Peake. 1994. Unnatural discourse. "Race' and gender in geography. Gender, Place & Culture 1 (2):225-243
  11. Kobayashi, A. 2003. The Construction of Geographic Knowledge: Racialization, Spatialization. In Handbook of Cultural Geography, edited by e. a. Kay Anderson. London: Sage Publications.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Wood, Denis. 1992. The Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Harley, J.B. 2001. The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Edited by P. Laxton. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  14. Winlow, Heather. 2001. Anthropometric cartography: constructing Scottish racial identity in the early twentieth century. Journal of Historical Geography 27 (4):507-528.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Winlow, Heather. 2006. Mapping moral geographies: W. Z. Ripley's races of Europe and the United States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96 (1):119-141.
  16. Winlow 200
  17. Goldberg, David Theo. 2006. Racial Europeanization. Ethnic and Racial Studies 29 (2):331-364.
  18. Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Crampton, Jeremy. 2007. Maps, Race, and Foucault: Eugenics and Territorialization Following WWI. In Space, knowledge and power : Foucault and geography, edited by J. C. a. S. Elden: Burlington.
  20. Burchell, Graham and Colin Gordon and Peter Miller. 1991. The Foucault effect : studies in governmentality : with two lectures by and an interview with Michel Foucault: University of Chicago Press.
  21. Crampton, Jeremy. 2007. Maps, Race, and Foucault: Eugenics and Territorialization Following WWI. In Space, knowledge and power : Foucault and geography, edited by J. C. a. S. Elden: Burlington, p.225

Further reading Edit

External linksEdit

Look up this page on
Wiktionary: somatotypes

Further readingEdit

  • Michael A. Little and Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, eds. Histories of American Physical Anthropology in the Twentieth Century, (Lexington Books; 2010); 259 pages; essays on the field from the late 19th to the late 20th century; topics include Sherwood L. Washburn (1911–2000) and the "new physical anthropology"

Template:Historical definitions of race

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