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Physical anthropology

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Physical anthropology, or biological anthropology, is the anthropological study of humans as a biological species. Areas studied include human evolution and genetics, the human and primate fossil record, and the biology and variation of current human and primate populations.

Physical anthropology arguably started in the 17th century, with an anatomical description of a young chimpanzee which was titled "Ourang-Outang sive Homo sylvestris: or the Anatomy of a Pygmie" and written by Edward Tyson in 1699. Physical anthropology was so called because all of its data was physical (fossils, especially human bones). With the rise of Darwinian theory and the modern synthesis, anthropologists had access to new forms of data, and many began to call themselves "biological anthropologists."

Some of early studies in physical anthropology, notably in anthropometry, are now rejected as worthless. Metrics such as the cephalic index were used to derive behavioral characteristics. Two of the earliest founders of scientific physical anthropology were Paul Broca and Franz Boas.

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Branches of physical anthropology

  • Primatology, the study of primates.
  • Population genetics, the study of biological human variability and diversity (related to evolutionary biology).
  • Human adaptation, the study of human adaptive responses (physiological, developmental, and genetic) to environmental stress and variation (see also biomedical anthropology).
  • Human and primate anatomy, the study of the skeletal anatomy and physiology of humans and their ancestors.
  • Human evolution, evolution as related to the emergence of Homo sapiens.
  • Osteology, the study of skeletal remains. Also includes:
    • Paleopathology, which studies the traces of disease and injury in human skeletons.
    • Forensic anthropology, the analysis and identification of human remains in the service of coroners or medical examiners. This research often provides law enforcement with important evidence.
  • Paleoanthropology, the study of fossil evidence for human evolution.
  • Human behavioral ecology, the study of behavioral adaptations such as foraging, reproduction, and ontogeny from an evolutionary ecological perspective (see also behavioral ecology).
  • Neuroanthropology, the study of the evolution of the human brain, and of culture as a neurological adaptation of the species to its environment.


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