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1.1: Introduction

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    From museums, science magazines, television shows, and even films, most of us have had some exposure to archaeology and have become familiar with some of the world’s most famous archaeological discoveries. Perhaps you chose this course because you are interested in Ancient Egypt, Greece, or Stonehenge. However, have you ever met an archaeologist in person? We commonly deal with many professions we see in the media, such as doctors, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, and teachers, but rarely have personal contact with archaeologists. As a result, we mostly rely on stereotypes portrayed in the media to understand archaeologists and the work they do.

    First surprise? Archaeology is much more than digging! It is a sub-discipline of the larger field of anthropology, which is the study of humankind. Anthropology studies all humans, in all times, at all places and is divided into four more-manageable sub-disciplines: biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. Biological anthropology studies humans from a biological perspective. This includes biological variation, primatology (studying primates such as lemurs, monkeys, and apes), human fossils, and evolution. Cultural anthropology, in contrast, studies humans from a cultural perspective. Culture is the learned behaviors of a group of people and it includes many, many elements—the languages they speak, the foods they eat, how they build their homes, what they believe, their customs, and more. Cultural anthropology observes and documents these practices and compares the cultures of various groups. Cultural anthropologists collect data and study cultures through participant observation, which involves living with, observing, and asking questions of the people they study. Linguistics is a cultural characteristic, and linguistic anthropology examines the linguistic aspects of human cultures in greater detail, including structural linguistics (patterns in sound, structure, and grammar), historical linguistics (how languages change and develop over time), and sociolinguistics (social aspects of language). Archaeology also considers aspects of culture and asks similar questions but uses different data. Rather than relying on observations of living participants, archaeology studies material culture—items people made, modified, and used in the past to understand the culture of our ancestors.

    Applied anthropology is sometimes considered the fifth sub-discipline. It involves applying theoretical elements of anthropology to real-world problems. Probably the most famous applied anthropology is forensic anthropology, popularized in television and film. Forensic anthropologists apply the principles and theory of biological anthropology to the identification of human skeletons in the context of crimes. Archaeologists who conduct surveys and excavations in the setting of construction projects are applying the principles and theory of archaeology to this real-world setting, another variety of applied anthropology.

    These sub-disciplines of anthropology are united into one field by a shared interest in humans and use of the scientific method, which is applied in anthropology through fieldwork and a holistic perspective. Together, the scientific method, fieldwork, and a holistic perspective define the anthropological approach.

    The scientific method is a process by which scientists ask questions, collect data, test hypotheses, and gain knowledge about the natural world. Its steps have been described in various ways but consistently address four basic elements: observation, hypotheses, experimentation/data collection, analysis, and conclusions. When applied, these steps are more like a cycle than a straight linear process as hypotheses can be revised after some initial data collection or experimentation, and new ideas and technologies can change the assumptions on which hypotheses were initially based. As we learn more and draw new conclusions, we develop new and different questions.

    Fieldwork is the hallmark of anthropological study and the process by which anthropologists collect data. Fieldwork collects data in “the real world”—with groups of humans and at living and archaeological sites. Some of the data is analyzed in the field as well, while other types are analyzed in laboratories, sometimes years later. Typically, fieldwork in anthropology involves many hours of observation of subjects, which can be a group of people in cultural and linguistic anthropology or a troop of baboons in biological anthropology. In archaeology, fieldwork consists primarily of observing landscapes to identify locations of past human activity to excavate and study.

    Anthropological analysis is built on a holistic perspective, the understanding that all of the various aspects of human biology and culture are necessarily interrelated. For example, humans’ biological makeup and large brains make our complex cultures possible. For anthropologists, the holistic perspective maintains connections between the four sub-disciplines and recognizes that developments in one area affect the questions asked in other areas of anthropology.

    This textbook will help you better understand archaeology and how it acquires knowledge about humans based solely on the material culture of the people being studied. You’ll learn how archaeologists do fieldwork and analyze human behaviors and patterns. Additionally, you’ll see how archaeologists use multiple types of data and evidence to draw conclusions about how humans have lived and adapted to the environment.

    Terms You Should Know

    • anthropology
    • anthropological approach
    • applied anthropology
    • archaeology
    • biological anthropology
    • cultural anthropology
    • culture
    • fieldwork
    • historical linguistics
    • holistic perspective
    • linguistic anthropology
    • material culture
    • participant observation
    • scientific method
    • sociolinguistics
    • structural linguistics

    Study Questions

    1. What are the four sub-disciplines of anthropology and how do they relate to the holistic nature of the field?
    2. How are cultural anthropology and archaeology similar? How are they different?
    3. How do anthropologists collect data?
    4. Apply what you have learned about anthropologists to answer the following question. How can anthropologists use or be informed by the scientific method since most anthropologists do not generally conduct “traditional” experiments?

    This page titled 1.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .