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All The Different ‘ologies’…

12 Mar

Here in my first post I described what human osteology is and what it can be used for.  As I have now written posts concerning the basics of human anatomy (muscles, bone, teeth), and a current key matter in British archaeology (reburial), it is now time to explain further the basic name terms.  As we define terms and their meanings, it is useful to note that is often a difference in meaning between the US and the European terms.  This will be pointed out as and when necessary.

He haunts all of archaeology…

Anthropology:  At its core, anthropology is the study of man; its behaviours, origins and cultures.  This is carried out in a range of ways; both by studying the biology of man and his descendants, and by studying culture in a broad context.  Anthropology in the USA is sub divided into four fields; Archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology & physical anthropology.  Each of these fields itself has many sub disciplines.  In the UK this is not as distinguished so much, and archaeology especially is considered in its right.

Archaeology: At its most basic archaeology is the study of past material and lifeways by previous people’s, populations and cultures.  This is carried out by the ‘scientific recovery, analysis and interpretation of the material remains’ (Jurmain et al 2011).  Evidence from the artefacts, ecofacts and structures recovered and investigated help to reveal information on the identity and social organisation of the culture under consideration.  Archaeology can span a vast amount of time, from early hominid remains right up until the 19th century.

Human Osteology:   This is the study of human skeletal remains, often from archaeological sites.  The interpretation of human bones often includes recording and investigating the remains for skeletal anatomy present (termed as elements), bone physiology, growth and development, and any pathology present.  Scientific investigation is used to discern relationships between individuals and populations, changes in diet or activity patterns, migration and morphological change.  Human bones are often the only organic remains of people present at archaeological sites.

Bioarchaeology:  In the USA bioarchaeology is the prefered term exclusively used for the study of human skeletal material from archaeological sites.  The originator of the term ‘bioarchaeology’ in the USA is Dr Jane Buikstra, interviewed here.  In the United Kingdom, bioarchaeology often includes the study of archaeozoological (or Zooarchaeology) and archaeobotany material.  That is animal osteological remains and plants remains (pollen, seeds, & phytoliths) from archaeological sites.

Physical Anthropology: As Jurmain et al (2011: 9) remark, physical anthropology is ‘the study of human biology within the framework of evolution and with an emphasis on the interaction of biology and culture’.  Once again, it is often named Biological Anthropology as well.  Physical anthropology includes knowledge of human osteology, and comparative knowledge of apes in producing a synthesis of human evolution.  This is achieved through the study of genetics, molecular biology, animal behaviour, cultural, palaeontological and osteological data.

Palaeoanthropology:  This is an interdisciplinary approach to the investigation and study of human evolution.  Spanning around 7 million years, there are many fragments our of ancestors stored in collections across the world, and waiting to be discovered in various countries in Africa.  The ultimate aim of palaeoanthropology is to collect and study the human and various hominid species to discern adaptations and behaviour characteristics.  The working out of the lineage of human evolution in all its complexities is the key aim in this.

Palaeopathology:  This is the study of pathological disease or trauma as evidenced on bones from archaeological or palaeontological sites.  Although only a small margin of trauma or disease affects the bone, palaeopathological studies are important in considering past population demographics and disease spread.  By studying past trauma, it can reveal the cultures and life patterns that people led.  It can also inform on diet and activity patterns.

This is only a short guide to the main fields of investigations used to shed light on the human past.  As Jurmain et al (2011: 19) comment, the ‘aim of all anthropology and related fields is to broaden the human viewpoint, both through time and space’.  That is to put ourselves in a biological and behavioural context alongside fellow creatures and the natural world.  It is the boundless curiosity of the human race itself that it seeks to define and explore our origins, behaviours and cultures.  That we should ‘hope to avoid falling into the ethnocentric pitfalls inherent in a more limited view of humanity’, and instead appreciate our place in nature.

Hard at work…


  • Here is a handy little guide to other specialisms often clumped within the field of Anthropology/Archaeology etc… Visiting journalists please take note of the differences between Paleontology and Archaeology!

N.B. In the American use of ‘palaeo’, the second ‘a’ is often left out.