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 using a scientific name made up of two Latin- or Greek-form words, with the first name capitalized and representative of an organism’s genus and the second name indicating an organism’s species (e.g., Homo sapiens, Australopithecus afarensis, Pongo tapanuliensis, etc.).
Biological anthropology: A subdiscipline of anthropology concerned with the biological origins, ecology, evolution, and diversity of humans and other primates. This term is increasingly preferred to physical anthropology, as many in the field now uncomfortably associate this original name (coined by Aleš Hrdlička) with the ways in which questions of human variation were studied in decades past and the sociohistorical context that made anthropology problematic before 1950 (see Warren 2018).
Biological determinism: The erroneous concept that an individual’s behavioral characteristics are innate and determined by genes, brain size, or other physiological attributes, and with no 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/clinal variation: 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, most common in northern Europeans (but also in other world populations more rarely).
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, omnivory, 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 complex term used commonly in an interchangeable way with the term race (see below).
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.
Founder effect: See population bottlenecking below.
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 from generation to generation due to random chance.
Heterogeneity: The quality of being diverse genetically.
Homogenous: The quality of being uniform genetically.
Human diversity/differentiation/variation: Group differences involving variation in biology, physiology, body chemistry, behavior, and culture.
Isolation-by-distance model: A model that predicts a positive relationship between genetic distances and geographical distances between pairs of populations.
Monogenic: Characterized as being controlled by a single gene (or, in other words, one pair of alleles). Sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are examples of disorders that are monogenically caused.
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 diversity 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.
Non-concordance: The fact of genes or traits not varying with one another and instead being inherited independently.
Othering: 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: See biological anthropology above.
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 (or founder effect): An event in which genetic diversity 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 not based on reason, whether that is 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 produce effects that 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 as opposed to between them in the overall apportionment of human biological variation.
Racism: Any action or belief that discriminates against someone based on perceived differences in race or ethnicity, and the characteristics, qualities, or abilities believed to be specific to a race that is inferior to another in some way.
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 used to test hypotheses and interpret their results.
Typology: 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.