Anthropos is a Greek word that means “man or human,” and logos means study. Anthropology focuses on specific questions like where, when, and why humans appeared on earth, How and why they’ve changed since then? How and why do modern human populations vary in certain physical features? How and why have societies gone in their customary ideas and practices in the past and present?
Anthropologists travel worldwide to study exotic people and fossil remains of ancient civilizations. With consistent research, anthropologists get familiar with human life and can often rectify people’s mistaken beliefs. For example, in the 1960s, American educators discovered that African children rarely drank milk. They assumed that it was because of poverty. But, anthropologists provided evidence explaining that several groups of people in Asia, South Europe, Arabs, and Africans lack the enzyme, which is vital for the breakdown of sugar in milk. This enzyme is called lactose, and when these people drank milk, it caused diseases like diarrhea, nausea, stomach gas, etc.
Additionally, anthropology is relevant as it helps avoid misunderstandings among different cultures and societies. If we try to figure out why we are different from our ancestors, we might have less reason to condemn them for strange behavior. We have now realized that these differences result from physical and cultural adaptions to the different environments.
How does Anthropology contribute to Biology?
Anthropology combines biological and cultural approaches to a given problem. Biological/physical anthropology studies human biological variation in time and space. Anthropology provides various explanations for similarities and differences by examining the origins of life on earth and changes in human biology and culture.
Biological anthropology seeks to answer two questions. The first is about the emergence of humans, called human paleontology or paleoanthropology. The second question is about Human variation, which is how the modern human population varies in certain physical features.
To better understand biological variation, biological anthropologists use the concepts, techniques, and principles of three other disciplines:
- Human genetics
Genetics is the study of human traits that are inherited. It studies the inheritance of characteristics by children from parents. Inheritance in humans does not differ fundamentally from that in other organisms. Much of this interest stems from a fundamental desire to know who humans are and why humans are as we find them today.
- Population biology
The study of environmental effects and interaction with population characteristics explores populations and how they interact with their environment. Scientists observe all factors influencing a population within an ecosystem when gathering data about specific people of interest. More often than not these observations are vital for the decisions about the preservation of species.
The study of how and why diseases affect different populations in different ways. It focuses on how often diseases occur in other groups of people and why. Epidemiological information is used to plan and evaluate strategies to prevent illness and guide the management of patients in whom the disease has already developed. A key feature of epidemiology is the measurement of disease outcomes concerning a population at risk.
To reconstruct the human evolution, human paleontologists search for the buried and hardened remains or impressions known as fossils of humans, prehuman, and related animals. If we aim to understand humans, it is also essential to study humans in all time and space.
When reconstructing humans’ past, paleontologists also study the behavior and evolution of our closest primates like mammals, the prosimians, monkeys, and apes. Anthropologists who specialize in the study of primates are called primatologists. One popular subject of study is the chimpanzee, which bears a close resemblance to humans in behavior and physical appearance, blood chemistry, and diseases. It now appears that chimpanzees share 99 percent of their genes with humans.
The biological anthropologist’s even more vital role is to amplify public understanding of human evolution and diversity. Terms such as race and ethnicity are used in everyday conversations and informal settings within and outside academia. The division of humankind into smaller, discrete categories is a regular occurrence in daily life. This is observed when governments acquire census data with a heading like “geographic origin” or “ethnicity.”
Why does a group of people different from others?
The study of human variation focuses on how and why contemporary human populations differ in biological and physical characteristics. Does it mainly focus on questions like why are some people taller than others? How have human populations adapted physically to their environmental conditions? Are some people, such as Eskimos (inhibiting the Arctic and Subarctic region), better equipped than other people to endure the cold? Does darker skin tone offer exceptional protection against the tropical sun?
In our society, tall and slim people are admired as beautiful. Still, people living above the arctic circle (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) need compact ones because people with broad chests conserve more body heat.
To date, many people do discrimination based on skin color, height, language, etc. racism is still present worldwide. One of the common examples of racism is the discrimination against blacks or Africans. An early folk believed that Africans are black as they are still not wholly human and kept them in zoos. Some perceive “black” as derogatory, outdated, reductive, or unrepresentative. A few believed that they were enslaved.
While skin color variation relates to the location, people who live near the equator have darker skin tones than those who live far away from the equator. Human skin color variation is related to the variation in solar radiation; solar radiation is intense near the equator, and melanin is present in the body of the people who live near the equator to protect them from UV rays. They have curly hair that protects their scalp from the burning of sunlight.
Ideas about ethnicity people hold have substantial social and political impacts. The notions of race have been part of the motivation behind various forms of racism and prejudice today and many wars and genocides throughout history. This is how the role of the biological anthropologist becomes crucial in the public sphere, as we may be able to debunk myths surrounding human diversity and shed light on how human variation is distributed worldwide.
Each tribe had different attributes from another tribe. Some were taller, some were thinner, some were good runners, some had curly hair, and some had straight hair. A few of them were dark-skinned, and some were light-skinned. The differences in height and size would also depend on where they grew up, i.e., whether they had good agricultural land or grew up in the desert or the mountains. Did they have cattle or sheep, fields full of hardy crops that could nurture their bodies and grow to be stronger and taller people? We are the same, but we are also different. This is what makes life more enjoyable.
- Epidemiology for the uninitiated, BMJ
- Robinson, 2002, human genetics.
- Dr. Lamare, 2019, population biology.
- Anthropology, Ember, M. Ember, peter, 2008.
Also, Read: Anthropology is today’s interconnected world
Aqsa Qazi is a student of Sociology at BUITMS Quetta. She tweets at @Aksa_Hashmi