History of Anthropology (Introduction)

by Dave

What does the history of anthropology focus on? Who are the influential people in the history of anthropology? I answer these questions and review the different branches of this discipline. In the end, I address the question about what remains unknown.

Anthropology is the study of humanity. It is a branch of science dealing with all aspects of humanity. Focuses include language, culture and natural character of everything. Anthropology has its main concern revolving around certain main elements. For instance, who homo sapiens were and who were the predecessors of the modern human species. In the long history of anthropology, this is the primary concern. Some look at the ways in which lives change in modern times. Other look to millions of years ago.

Anthropologists work like detectives. Their efforts look at the daily lives of previous cultures and doing studies of what has been left behind. They make use of unearthed tools, weapons, pots and bones to get clues about the lives of the previous groups and their culture. Although unlike detectives, anthropologists aren’t looking for lost valuables, they are more interested in seeking possible explanations of the past customs until they eventually ceased to exist. 

Main Foci over the History of Anthropology

It majors on the characteristic and the critical aspects of behavior, similarities, and variations in the different kind of human beings. Anthropology has four main subfields. Each branch represents a specific department, for instance, biological and physical anthropology, linguistic, archaeological anthropology and social anthropology. 

Each of these fields has its functions, and it works with a given technology. Anthropology endeavors to explain the origin and behavior of human beings. It studies, cultural and social developments that are related to these human beings. Why investigate these things? Well, for one, humans are naturally curious about their past. Many believe today’s world is a product of millions of years of progress.

While there are problems looking at things linearly, it’s also quite helpful. In many ways, there are a number of points in human history where we took steps of progress. Looking into these steps helps builds an understanding of who we are as a species. Of course, it’s not just about humans all the time either. Many branches of anthropology look at things with which we share our world. Things like culture and the Earth help shape our species as well.

Based on the various aspects of human beings, anthropology has multiple branches. For example, linguistic anthropology deals with the role if human language. It also includes the shaping of the social life of human beings. The chapter deals with all aspects of literature that can be related to human life.

Influential People in the History of Anthropology

Edward Burnett Tylor helped establish the core elements of anthropology as a field. In his studies, he arrived at the conclusion that civilizations and intelligence grow together. So, if humans get more intelligent, their society improves. All societies produced an evolutionary timeline. This proves to be a useful way to chart human progress. Archeological findings were organized into a single universal series such as the stone age, ice age, bronze age, each of which relates to specific stages of economic organization. Specific members of importance in the history of anthropology specialize in a single age. Some sets of people, such as the Australian aboriginals, were considered to be primitive in evolutionary terms as they represent stages of evolution through which all other societies had passed. 

Darwin’s views were the basis upon which the universal history of Enlightenment was written and according to this, the progress of human institution was inevitable, guaranteed by the development of rationality. It was believed that technological progress was constant and that it was matched by developments in the understanding of the world and in social forms.

Spiritual Considerations in Anthropology

Tylor further developed a theory on spirituality. Across human civilizations, a belief in spirits existed. These spirits were often provided with acts of service and ritualistic sacrifice. Sacrifice in particular seemed universal among humans. The act of providing a sacrifice to spirits served as a form of offering for spiritual presences across civilizations. Modern religions still provide forms of sacrifice. As humans become more intelligent, they also become more rational and therefore, these primitive features become gradually refined with time and would eventually become abandoned. 

A lot of anthropology is reckoning with things we might not recognize as acceptable. For example, human sacrifices are not common in our society today. That being said, we are not in a place to judge their practices. We can assume we are more advanced than them, but our future humans will do the same to us. Rather than pass judgement, anthropology looks to understand practices, not qualify them.

Arguments in History to the Influence of Social Institutions

Some writers, including John Ferguson McLennan and his many contemporaries, worked to prove that institutions in society grow together. They posited that the first humans frequently engaged in sexual activity with one another. At some point, each civilization would realize the blood relations between parents and offspring. As incest was recognized, interbreeding ceased, and even became forbidden. Also with time, mating became restricted and paternity was recognized in the history of anthropology. As these developments continued, new priorities emerged. These included the basic proponents of Western civilizations, like building wealth, advancing social status, and gaining respect among peers. Eventually, ideas of what a family unit should look like, as well as the importance of property, followed.

A different approach

A different approach to the evolutionary tendencies of anthropology established itself European countries like Germany and its neighbors. The region became hyper focused on the ways in which humans progressed over large scopes of time. The concept of studying cultural traditions and adaptations helped develop regional understandings. When applied to other regions, universal human traits could be theorized. This approach was spread to the United States at the end of the 19th century by Franz Boas. Boas was a German trained scholar. He advocated for something highly influential. At one point, it was assumed that intelligence and technology arrived in each society at a given point. Instead, research found change and progress to be wildly unpredictable. This is a consequence of migration and borrowing. 

Moving can have a variety of impacts on a human group. For example, going to a warmer climate can lead to long term evolutionary processes. The body adapts to different parts of the world in some incredible ways. For example, sun and heat exposure produces darker skin tones. Millions of years of evolution lead to the smallest human features. What might seem like a small feature on your face could be part of a story multiple centuries in the making.

Branches of the History of Anthropology

Another branch is cultural anthropology. This deals with the various facets of culture. Culture consists of behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Facets which relate to human life in either a positive or a negative way. Professionals achieve this though paying a keen interest on the positive impact. When we look at the history of anthropology, cultural influences matter greatly.

 The archaeological branch of anthropology deals with human past and cultures based on the material remains. Archaeology involves excavation, analysis, and interpretation of cultural processes, soils, and artifacts. It’s important to understand material remains. Humans are storytelling beings. We work well when we see a story play out. Because we rarely find written elements of the history of anthropology, material artifacts are second best. What if you could relive the lives of our ancestors? Well, the best way to do so is excavate things they used in their lives. We learn about tools, progress, and even what life was like through these materials.

Physical anthropology, which is also referred  to as biological anthropology is a scientific discipline related to a behavioral and physiological characteristic of human beings. It studies the diversity of various groups start from the origin, the evolution they underwent and their cultural diversity. There are a lot less of these sorts of evidence. It can be tough finding whole skeletons of ancient humans. Therefore, everything from bones to skulls can tell us what homo sapiens might have looked like millions of years ago. Through evolution, the body changes to keep survival possible.

Cultural Impacts of the History of Anthropology world culture

What Does Anthropology Attempt to Solve?

Anthropologists in the physical field work widely on the main human problems. Some of these problems are new. Others have been around for centuries. These include human evolution, and the importance as well as the anthropology bases for human ways of doing things. It’s easy to forget our habits take decades to form. Things like consumerism is not inherent to our biology. Where do we learn the actions and behaviors we practice? Sociologists look at the strictly interactive behaviors. What about things like standing up straight? That’s where anthropology comes into play. Anthropology is a great field for the curious. If you think often about big picture questions, then this is the field for you.

Anthropology is considered the most humanistic of sciences and also scientific if humanities. With a blend of both, those big questions are possible to provide answers. Multiple branches of the field allow for greater insights.

Cultural Impacts of the History of Anthropology

Cultural anthropology is a critical subject and focus of anthropology. It is the basis for which ideals and beliefs are passed to the offsprings in the future generations. Think about religion, for example. Kids learn spiritual practices from their parents, more often than not. So too do offspring learn beliefs and behaviors. This has been happening for millions of years. This area of anthropology can help us understand certain practices. For instance, why do we celebrate winter holidays in winter? The birth of Jesus Christ likely did not occur in December. Cultural anthropologists can determine why Christmas is celebrated in December, rather another, more accurate time.

Advancements have seen anthropologists at the university level study anthropology of business in an endeavor to understand the operations and culture of a given people. It helps corporations get an answer on how to market and a given product to the consumers, enabling them to develop a productive company culture. Anthropology is significant as it can synthesize the learning of various disciplines and get a comprehensive picture of what is meant by humanity. It’s a bridge on which multiple disciplines can meet. That provides professionals in the field a great insight into both the humanities and the sciences.

Turning the History of Anthropology to New Findings

Anthropology knows the importance of history quite well. Humanities are often very reliant on history. Thanks to the scientific spin on anthropology, the field is a great hybrid. While looking at history, we can create new theories and findings. Because of the professionals in the field, we know a bit about our ancestors. Without excavations, we would be left to guess what life was like at various points in time. History is more than just a tool to see into the past, however. We can also use it to determine what might happen in the future.

For example, seeing the ways in which humans evolve physiologically is influential to new findings. We know the body changes to survive. Things like skull size, height, and other physical changes happen slowly. Nevertheless, they occur to keep humanity moving forward. Why? It’s our nature. Evolution happens in species of all shapes and sizes. While we can’t know what humans will look like in 100 million years, we can predict. How? Through inferences from our history.

Another important aspect of the future of anthropology is technology. Computing technology has transformed the way we investigate the past. Things like modeling technology help take a single bone and sculpt a fake skeleton. This way, we can see how one single bone might have affected the human body. If that bone is vastly different from our bone now, we can hypothesize why. This applies to all aspects of the history of anthropology as well. There are a great amount of areas that stay undiscovered. With technology, both in computers and digging equipment, we can get closer to our truth as a species.

What Still Remains Unknown?

There are a number of things we still don’t know. What causes mass extinctions in parts of the world throughout human history? Where do advanced civilizations go, like the Mayans? There are few answers. Luckily, the efforts of anthropologists all over the globe give us hope for answers. While you might not read academic journals, these questions likely cross your mind. A great way to explore interests in a field is to learn the basics. Hopefully you understand a bit more about the history of anthropology now. As you continue to explore the subject, remember: we are still learning every day about our species.