Biological (or physical) anthropologists carry out systematic studies of the non-cultural aspects of humans and near-humans. Non-cultural refers to all of those biological characteristics that are genetically inherited in contrast to learned. Near-human is a category that includes monkeys, apes, and the other primates as well as our fossil ancestors. The primary interest of most biological anthropologists today is human evolution–they want to learn how our ancestors changed through time to become what we are today. Biological anthropologists also are interested in understanding the mechanisms of evolution and genetic inheritance as well as human variation and adaptations to different environmental stresses, such as those found at high altitudes and in environments that have temperature extremes. Biological anthropologists are usually involved in one of three different areas of research: human biology, primatology, or paleoanthropology. Human biology is concerned with learning about human diversity, genetic inheritance patterns, non-cultural adaptations to environmental stresses, and other biological characteristics of our species, Homo sapiens
carry out non-human primate studies. This is usually done in a natural setting among wild apes, monkeys, and related animals. They are principally interested in learning about the capabilities and behavior patterns of primates–our closest living relatives. It is likely that the great apes in particular can give us important clues to understanding the lives of our earliest human ancestors over 2 million years ago. Paleoanthropologists
recover the fossil record of early humans and their primate ancestors in order to understand the path of our evolution. In doing this, they often work with geologists, paleozoologists, and scientists with other specialties who help them reconstruct ancient environments.
| Paleoanthropologists searching for fossils and artifacts of our distant human
ancestors in a French cave
| Introduction to biological anthropology–what biological anthropologists
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program. (length = 3 mins, 45 secs) (closed caption version)
Cultural (or socio-cultural) anthropologists are interested in learning about the cultural aspects of human societies all over the world. They usually focus their research on such things as the social and political organizations, marriage patterns and kinship systems, subsistence and economic patterns, and religious beliefs of different societies. Most cultural anthropologists study contemporary societies rather than ancient ones. Through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the peoples who primarily interested cultural anthropologists were those who lived in small-scale, isolated societies with cultures that were very different from those of Europeans and European Americans. African, American Indian, and Pacific Island societies were often the subject of their research. Today, they are equally likely to study subcultures of modern, large-scale societies such as Southeast Asian Hmong families now living in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mexican neighborhoods in Southern California, or conservative Old Order Amish communities in rural Pennsylvania.