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1: Introduction to Biological Anthropology

  • Page ID
    • Beth Shook, Lara Braff, Katie Nelson, & Kelsie Aguilera

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    Learning Objectives

    • Describe anthropology and the four subdisciplines.
    • Explain the main anthropological approaches.
    • Define biological anthropology, describe its key questions, and identify major subfields.
    • Explain key components of the scientific method.
    • Differentiate between hypotheses, theories, and laws.
    • Differentiate science from other ways of knowing.

    Diving in caves along the Caribbean coast of Mexico, archaeologist Octavio del Rio and his team spotted something unusual in the sand 26 feet below the ocean surface. As they swam closer, they suspected it could be a bone—and likely a very ancient one, as this cave system is inaccessible today without modern diving equipment. However, in the distant past, these caves were dry land formations high above the ocean. The divers ended up recovering not just one but many bones from the site. Eventually they were able to reconstruct an 80% complete human skeleton that they named “Eve of Naharon.” Dated to 13,600 years ago, she is (as of today) the oldest known North American skeleton (TANN 2018).

    Who was Eve? What was her life like? How did she end up in the cave? What can we learn about her from the bones she left behind? Anthropologists have determined that Eve was 4.6 feet tall, had a broken back, and died in her early 20s. Although it is rare to find an ancient, nearly complete skeleton in the ocean depths, Eve is not the only such find. In underwater caves along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, archaeologists have found eight well-preserved skeletons dated between 9,000 to 13,000 years old. With each new discovery—whether it is a skeleton in North America, fossil footprints in Tanzania, or a mandible with teeth in China—we come another step closer to understanding the evolution of our species.

    Biological anthropologists study when and how human beings evolved; their intriguing findings are the focus of this book. Biological anthropology is one of four subdisciplines within anthropology; the others are cultural anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. All anthropological subdisciplines seek to better understand what it means to be human.

    This chapter is a revision from “Chapter 1: Introduction to Biological Anthropology” by Katie Nelson, Lara Braff, Beth Shook, and Kelsie Aguilera. In Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology, first edition, edited by Beth Shook, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, and Lara Braff, which is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    This page titled 1: Introduction to Biological Anthropology is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Beth Shook, Lara Braff, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, & Kelsie Aguilera (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.