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Social Sci LibreTexts

1.1: Introduction to the Development of Anthropological Ideas

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  • Anthropology is the study of humankind, otherwise known as Homo sapiens, the wise primate. It is about our history, our prehistory before written records, our biology, our language, our distribution of peoples all over the planet, and the cultural and social aspects of our existence. The methods we use on this journey are varied and eclectic—an unusual discipline. What is perhaps unique about anthropology is its global quality, its comparative potential, and its integrative possibilities, which result from its examination of histories, biologies, languages, and socio-cultural variations. As a discipline, it is unusual because it is both soft and hard, including science as well as the humanities, between nature and culture, the past and the present, searching for new ways to understand the human condition. We are an academic discipline with porous boundaries that has refused to specialize and as a result can claim to have made enormous contributions to understanding what it means to be human. Anthropology is a young discipline, in only its fourth generation, one of the first of the new sciences along with ecology.

    In the nineteenth century, archaeology challenged short chronologies of biblical origin with longer time depth, while biological and cultural anthropology questioned stereotyped thinking about race and ethnicity. Socio-cultural anthropology moved from armchair theorizing to first-hand fieldwork and, with the concept of cultural relativism, challenged predominant theories of the day, including scientific theories. We know that science is created by humans so it is bound to have human limitations, human error, human ignorance. Such realizations made us think about how knowledge is created and challenge the idea that western ways of thinking are the only source of truth. Early climate predictions were available in Peru before the arrival of European colonizers.