Field and lab anthropology image

show/hide words to know

Archaeology: the branch of anthropology that studies the material culture and materials of humans.

Biological anthropology: the branch of anthropology that studies the biological origins and traits of humans, our ancestors, and other primates. ... more

Cultural anthropology: the branch of anthropology that studies human culture.

Forensic anthropology: a branch of physical anthropology that is used with law enforcement (i.e., police) to investigate human remains.

Linguistic anthropology: the branch of anthropology that studies the language of humans. This branch is often combined with cultural anthropology.

What is anthropology?

Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who worked in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. She was very influential in the 1960s and 70s. Image by Smithsonian Institution from United States.If you’ve ever seen Indiana Jones, then you’ve seen a (fictional) anthropologist in action. While the stories and characters in those movies are fake, being an anthropologist is a very real career. You can take anthropology classes in most colleges, you can major in it, and you can work as an anthropologist after you graduate.

Anthropology (anthropos=man, -logy=study of) is the study of humans. This includes human biology, origins, culture, and art. Anthropology has 4 subfields: cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology. Together, these fields study all aspects of what it means to be human.

Now, most anthropologists don’t spend their careers being chased by boulders.  However, they do travel to exotic places around the world to do their work. We often call the places where we do research “field sites.”  It is here that we collect information (what we call data) to answer questions about humans. There are many specialties within biological anthropology.

SpecialtyObjects of studyResearch focus
PaleoanthropologyHuman fossilsHuman evolution
BioarchaeologyRecent human remains; places humans lived recentlyWhat life was like for recent humans
Genetic anthropologyDNAGenetic relation of humans to each other and other species

Dr. Paabo and his team study and have successfully sequenced the Neanderthal genome, letting us compare our own DNA to that of Neanderthals. Image by Jonathunder.So if you’re a biological anthropologist, what kind of jobs do you do?  One option is working for colleges or universities doing research and teaching classes. Another option is to work for private institutions or for the government. For example, there are some anthropologists that work in forensics. This means that they work with the police to solve crimes. They examine bodies found at crime scenes. They can also help with facial reconstructions. Some popular TV shows even ask biological anthropologists to consult on episodes that solve murder mysteries. Anthropologists can do many things. 

How did changes in the Earth’s climate affect our human ancestors?
Answer »

Be part of Ask An Anthropologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a volunteers page to get the process started.

Donate icon  Contribute