Age of Discovery: A period between the late 1400s and late 1700s when European explorers and ships sailed extensively across the globe in pursuit of new trading routes and territorial conquest.
Ancestry: Biogeographical information about an individual, traced either through the study of an individual’s genome, skeletal characteristics, or some other form of forensic/archaeological evidence. Anthropologists carry out probabilistic estimates of ancestry. They attribute sets of human remains to distinctive “ancestral” groups using careful statistical testing and should report ancestry estimations with statistical probability values.
Binomial nomenclature: A system of naming living things developed by Linnaeus in the 1700s. It employs a scientific name made up of two italicized Latin or Greek words, with the first word capitalized and representative of an organism’s genus and the second word indicating an organism’s species (e.g., Homo sapiens, Australopithecus afarensis, Pongo tapanuliensis, etc.).
Biological anthropology: A branch of study under anthropology (the study of humankind) that focuses on when and where humans and our human ancestors first originated, how we have evolved and adapted globally over time, and the reasons why we see biological variation among humans worldwide today.
Biological determinism: The erroneous concept that an individual’s behavioral characteristics are innate and determined by genes, brain size, or other physiological attributes—and, notably, without the influence of social learning or the environment around the individual during development.
Bony labyrinth: A system of interconnected canals within the auditory (ear- or hearing-related) apparatus, located in the inner ear and responsible for balance and the reception of sound waves.
Cline: A gradient of physiological or morphological change in a single character or allele frequency among a group of species across environmental or geographical lines (e.g., skin color varies clinally, as, over many generations, human groups living nearer the equator have adapted to have more skin pigmentation).
Continuous variation: This term refers to variation that exists between individuals and cannot be measured using distinct categories. Instead, differences between individuals within a population in relation to one particular trait are measurable along a smooth, continuous gradient.
Cystic fibrosis: A genetic disorder in which one defective gene causes overproduction and buildup of mucus in the lungs and other bodily organs. It is most common in northern Europeans (but also occurs in other world populations).
Ecological niche: The position or status of an organism within its community and/or ecosystem, resulting from the organism’s structural and functional adaptations (e.g., bipedalism, omnivorous diets, lactose digestion, etc.).
Essentialism: A belief or view that an entity, organism, or human grouping has a specific set of characteristics that are fundamentally necessary to its being and classification into definitive categories.
Ethnicity: A term used commonly in an interchangeable way with the term race, complicated because how different people define this term depends on the qualities and characteristics they use to assign a label or identity to themselves and/or others (which may include aspects of family background, skin color, language(s) spoken, religion, physical proportions, behavior and temperament, etc.).
Eugenics: A set of beliefs and practices that involves the controlled selective breeding of human populations with the hope of improving their heritable qualities, especially through surgical procedures like sterilization and legal rulings that affect marriage rights for interracial couples.
Gene flow: A neutral (or nonselective) evolutionary process that occurs when genes get shared between populations.
Genetic drift: A neutral evolutionary process in which allele frequencies change from generation to generation due to random chance.
Heterogeneity: The quality of being diverse genetically.
Homogenous: The quality of being uniform genetically.
Human diversity: Human diversity is a measure of variation that may describe how many different forms of human there are, separated or clustered into groups according to some genetic, phenotypic, or cultural trait(s). The term can be applied to culture (in which case humans can be described as significantly diverse) or genetics (in which case humans are not diverse because all humans on Earth share a majority of their genes).
Human variation: Differences in biology, physiology, body chemistry, behavior, and culture. By measuring these differences, we understand the degrees of variation between individuals, groups, populations, or species.
Isolation-by-distance model: A model that predicts a positive relationship between genetic distances and geographical distances between pairs of populations.
Monogenetic: Pertaining to the idea that the origin of a species is situated in one geographic region or time (as opposed to polygenetic).
Mutation: A gene alteration in the DNA sequence of an organism. As a random, neutral evolutionary process that occurs over the course of meiosis and early cell development, gene mutations are possible sources of variation in any given human gene pool. Genetic mutations that occur in more than 1% of a population are termed polymorphisms.
Natural selection: An evolutionary process whereby certain traits are perpetuated through successive generations, likely owing to the advantages they give organisms in terms of chances of survival and/or reproduction.
Nonconcordance: The fact of genes or traits not varying with one another and instead being inherited independently.
Otherness: In postcolonial anthropology, we now understand “othering” to mean any action by someone or some group that establishes a division between “us” and “them” in relation to other individuals or populations. This could be based on linguistic or cultural differences, and it has largely been based on external characteristics throughout history.
Out-of-Africa model: A model that suggests that all humans originate from one single group of Homo sapiens in (sub-Saharan) Africa who lived between 100,000 and 315,000 years ago and who subsequently diverged and migrated to other regions across the globe.
Physical anthropology: This used to be the more common name given to the subdiscipline of anthropology centered upon the study of human origins, evolution and variation (also see biological anthropology above). This name for the field has gradually become less popular due to two reasons: first, it may not reflect our interests in other aspects of humankind that are not physical (such as those behavioral, cultural and spiritual), and second, using this term popular in the early decades of our field may be viewed by some as harkening back to a time when biological anthropologists conducted their work in unethical ways.
Polygenetic: Having many different ancestries, as in older theories about human origins that involved multiple traditional groupings of humans evolving concurrently in different parts of the world before they merged into one species through interbreeding and/or intergroup warfare. These earlier suggestions have now been overwhelmed by insurmountable evidence for a single origin of the human species in Africa (see the “Out-of-Africa model”).
Polymorphism: A genetic variant within a population (caused either by a single gene or multiple genes) that occurs at a rate of over 1% among the population. Polymorphisms are responsible for variation in phenotypic traits such as blood type and skin color.
Population: A group of humans living in a particular geographical area, with more local interbreeding within-group than interbreeding with other groups. A limited or restricted amount of gene flow between populations can occur due to geographical, cultural, linguistic, or environmental factors.
Population bottlenecking: An event in which genetic variation is significantly reduced owing to a sharp reduction in population size. This can occur when environmental disaster strikes or as a result of human activities (e.g., genocides or group migrations). An important example of this loss in genetic variation occurred over the first human migrations out of Africa and into other continental regions.
Prejudice: An unjustified attitude toward an individual or group that is not based on reason, whether positive (and showing preference for one group of people over another) or negative (and resulting in harm or injury to others).
Race: The identification of a group based on a perceived distinctiveness that makes that group more similar to each other than they are to others outside the group. This may be based on cultural differences, genetic parentage, physical characteristics, behavioral attributes, or something arbitrarily and socially constructed. As a social or demographic category, perceptions of “race” can have real and serious consequences for different groups of people. This is despite the fact that biological anthropologists and geneticists have demonstrated that all humans are genetically homogenous and that more differences can be found within populations than between them in the overall apportionment of human biological variation. This term is sometimes used interchangeably with ethnicity.
Racism: Any action or belief that discriminates against someone based on perceived differences in race or ethnicity.
Scientific Revolution: A period between the 1400s and 1600s when substantial shifts occurred in the social, technological, and philosophical sense, when a scientific method based on the collection of empirical evidence through experimentation was emphasized and inductive reasoning was used to test hypotheses and interpret their results.
Typological: Of or describing an assortment system that relies on the interpretation of qualitative similarities or differences in the study of variation among objects or people. The categorization of cultures or human groups according to “race” was performed with a typological approach in the earliest practice of anthropology, but this practice has since been discredited and abandoned.
Variance: In statistics, variance measures the dispersal of a set of data around the mean or average value.