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Department of Archaeology

 

What is biological anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of humans in comparative perspective – comparing societies and cultures, looking at change over time, and exploring human biological diversity. Biological anthropology takes this comparative approach to exploring human evolution and adaptation: comparisons between humans and other animals to understand human uniqueness and biological variation; comparisons across time to unravel the evolutionary history of hominins over the last 6–8 million years; investigating variation in human development and health, exploring the mechanisms that generate population differences today and in the past; and looking at individual behaviour in terms of evolution and adaptation and its underlying cognitive basis.

What do biological anthropologists do?

Biological anthropology is an extremely diverse field – in a sense, it encompasses all the biological and behavioural sciences, but focuses on humanity. So, biological anthropologists can be palaeontologists, geneticists, archaeologists, ecologists, physiologists, ethologists, epidemiologies, osteologists, among others! Most people in the subject do fieldwork, sometimes in relatively remote places. This may involve observing gorillas and/or chimpanzees in the Congo, tracking the routes taken by ancient hominins in eastern Africa, mapping gene and language boundaries in Australasia and the Pacific Islands, collecting skeletal data in top-tier museums across Europe, investgating child worm infestations in Bangladesh, or digging up archaeological sites in places like China, Italy, Vietnam, or Spain.

What are the applications of biological anthropology?

Understanding human variation as a product of evolution has many applications outside of academia and further research. For instance:

  • anthropometry (the measurement of human body form) has applications in industries which require body proportions to be accounted for, as in the clothes, military, sports and factory work industries,
  • the scientific study of our bodies in motion, kinanthropology, offers important insights for sports companies relating to maximum physical potentials, biochemistry and physiology, and musculoskeletal anatomy
  • through the study of human remains, understanding how a profile of a deceased individual can be drawn from excavated bones and teeth can prove useful in commercial archaeology and forensic casework (either relating to accidents/crimes, or larger-scale contexts of wars or genocides)
  • human origins and dispersion gives us useful knowledge in the clinical and medical fields, by informing us on worldwide health variation, the relationships between age, nutrition and disease, knowledge of defective genes, and suspectibility/resistivity to diseases
  • an education in primatology (the study of our relationship with monkeys and apes) can be important for ape tourism, conservation and epidemiology
  • human ecology and evolution contributes perspectives and knowledge useful for understanding the interaction between humans and environment/climate change

Altogether, biological anthropoology also trains you to look at things analytically and become cognizant of human cultural/biological diversity. In the context of human evolutionary studies or comparative biology, you may find a useful frame of reference to pick up statistical and analytical skills, as well hone your creative thinking and critical reading.

Explore how you can study Biological Anthropology at Cambridge as an undergraduate or postgraduate student.