Anthropology is the study of people, their language, culture, and evolution. Early European explorers were curious about the peoples they met while exploring the world. They began to study the people they encountered. Along the way, they developed comparisons – and were surprised by the wide range of cultures they found.
The study of anthropology came to the United States in the early 19th century. At that time, there were many civilizations sprinkled across the continental United States. Native American culture and traditions differed from tribe to tribe and between regions. Anthropologists sought to understand these cultural differences.
Most anthropologists studied Native American tribes out of simple curiosity. However, not everyone’s intentions were benign. As the government sought more control over the Native American population, the study of anthropology was used to try and “civilized” the natives. Clearly, there was a conflict between gaining knowledge and using that knowledge in ways that were oppressive or coercive. These conflicts led to many discussions over what was suitable and what was not.
Over the years, anthropology has changed greatly. In the United States, anthropology is based on a “four-field” approach in which several disciplines work together to enhance our understanding of other cultures. These four fields include biological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology, as well as archaeology.
In biological anthropology, people are studied for their physical characteristics. Scientists seek to understand how we evolved into our current form. They studied genetics, human evolution, primatology, forensic anthropology, and more.
Cultural anthropology is the field that studies culture and social organization. Through field studies, researchers collect data on language, political structure, legal system, mythology, family structure – all areas of culture that we often take for granted, at least until confronted with a completely different cultural viewpoint!
In the field of linguistic anthropology, researchers study language. They don’t just study the words that we use; they also study how that language is used, and how it relates to culture.
Archaeology is the study of man-made artifacts. Usually these artifacts are of ancient origin, though archaeologists also study modern ethnographic populations. Archaeologists search for these artifacts, carefully noting the precise location of each found object. Generally speaking, archaeology is often seen as a separate specialty. In reality, anthropology and archaeology share a lot of the same information.
Anthropologists have come under fire for “stealing” from other cultures, and have worked hard to overcome this bias. There is no doubt that anthropologists have preserved what little remains of many cultures, including Native American cultures that otherwise would have been lost. Their contribution to our understanding of culture, language, and more widens our understanding of the world and allows us to see through new eyes.