Physical anthropology

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Physical anthropology or racial biology (also racial taxonomy) is the field of anthropology that studies the physical/biological variation of humans, other non-human primates, and extinct hominin ancestors of humans. It does not include linguistics, archeology, or sociocultural aspects which are the focus of other (anthropological) fields. In practice, various related fields (anthropological and non-anthropological) are often studied together. (See also the anthropology article on differing views on what anthropology is in different countries.)


Physical anthropology is an arena for scientific debates on human biology, evolution and race. Despite their differing theoretical orientations and ideological stances, however, physical anthropologists still share a frame of reference. They have a mutual scientific interest in the classification of human races and the mapping of the biological history of humankind, and they often use a common set of methods.

Much of the research regarding race was previously done within anthropology and in particular within physical anthropology. One explanation for this is that it was anthropologists who traveled to and made detailed ethnographic studies of different peoples. Such studies also included detailed descriptions of morphology (form/structure, comparative anatomy).

Morphological characteristics could be easily and reliable measured unlike physiological, mental or genetic characteristics, which were difficult or impossible to measure at this time. Therefore, they were the primary characteristics used in human racial taxonomy. This reliance on morphology was nothing unique for human taxonomy, but applied to taxonomy in general at this time. Morphological characteristics used in human taxonomy included pigmentation, hair form and skeletal form. See also Race and morphology/physiology.

Today, racial differences are also studied by groups such as psychologists, epidemiologists, and criminologists. More fundamentally, during recent decades taxonomy in general has been revolutionized by the appearance of increasingly detailed genetic studies. The same has occurred for human taxonomy. This genetic research is today usually not done by anthropologists.

In particular American anthropology has been characterized by increasing influence from Boasian anthropology and race denialism as well as political correctness and genetics denialism more generally. There have also been increasing conflicts between the increasingly non-scientific cultural/social anthropology sub-field and the other more scientific sub-fields. See the articles on Boasian anthropology and the American Anthropological Association.

See also