Physical Anthropology

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Physical Anthropology

Twentieth-century trends


The article under this heading provides a broad overview of the field of physical anthropology. Specific areas within the field are reviewed inEvolution, articles onprimate evolutionandhuman evolution; Genetics, article Onrace and genetics; Race; Social behavior, animal, article onprimate behavior. Parallel areas within the field of psychology are reviewed inEugenics; Individual differences; Psychology, article Onconstitutional psychology. Also relevant are the biographies ofBoas; Broca; Darwin; Hooton; HrdliČka; Kretschmer; Kroeber; Pearson; RÓheim; Weidenreich; Wissler.

Physical anthropology, linked by tradition and by academic usage with the behavioral science of anthropology, is nevertheless a discipline that is basically biological. The long-established connection between two such apparently disparate subjects might suggest a common origin obscured by increasing specialization and ultimate subdivision. This, however, is not the case. Physical anthropology had an origin quite independent of anthropology, or to put it another way, it had roots going back to developments that had little or nothing to do with the beginnings of anthropology and its cultural preoccupation.

Origins of physical anthropology. One of the classic themes of physical anthropology—the races of mankind—emerged from the zoological and taxonomic studies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As early as 1684, Bernier published an article in the Journal des sçavans on this subject; this article was one of the first attempts, if not the first, to do for the varieties of mankind what the zoologists and botanists had for some time been seeking to achieve for the bewildering and exciting array of newly discovered flora and fauna that the age of discovery had made known to European students.

Following Bernier’s pioneer attempt at a classification of man, Linné in 1735 proposed another based on taxonomic principles developed from the experience of several generations of botanists and zoologists attempting to find some kind of order in the enormous variety of nature. By including man in the world of living organisms susceptible to a common systematic treatment, he did much to advance the notion that it was proper to consider man as a biological organism and an object of scientific study.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the anatomical and morphological variation of man as a field of serious investigation was well established by the contributions of anatomists, physicians, and representatives of other cognate fields. By the turn of the century the contributions of two anatomists, Blumenbach and Camper, stood out as particularly formative in this area, which had not yet developed into what we would now call a discipline. Both were notable for seeking new methods of analyzing racial differentiation and Camper in particular for introducing quantitative techniques in the search—particularly the measurement of the facial angle.

The predominance of anatomy in the formative stages of physical anthropology is also reflected in the contributions made by the studies on man and the primates that were initiated by Tyson’s Orangoutang, sive homo sylvestris (1699). The very nature of the inquiry into the racial differentiation of mankind required a comparative methodology, the basis of which was supplied by Tyson. The comparative method has continued to be one of the distinctive features of physical anthropology.

The intimate relationship between anatomy and physical anthropology was maintained during the nineteenth century. Some of the outstanding physical anthropologists continued to be men trained in anatomy or medicine. The first names that come to mind are Retzius, Broca, and Virchow, but there are many others. This tradition has continued down to the present day in Europe, where medical training remains a standard preparation for research in physical anthropology. And, indeed, this tradition is so strong that the association of physical anthropology with cultural and social anthropology is far less intimate there than it is in the United States and in England.

Nineteenth-century developments. Despite its early connections with anatomy and other biological subjects, physical anthropology eventually came under the aegis of anthropology. One of the reasons for this association lies in the fact that among the dominant problems to which the emergent anthropology of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries addressed itself were the cultural evolution of mankind and the relationships of various groups within such a frame. Every body of data that appeared to contribute to an eventual solution was appropriated. Thus, anthropologists not only used data on cultural phenomena but also drew evidence from racial and anatomical studies, as well as from linguistics. Later, when archeology became productive of appropriate information it was drawn into the association. Since at this stage of its development physical anthropology had neither a disciplinary identity nor much of an organizational life of its own, it was readily absorbed, at least in the tradition followed in the United States. Indeed, its very name suggests this.

The subject matter of physical anthropology remained largely confined to the races of man and whatever comparative anatomical studies were pertinent until the era inaugurated in 1859 by Darwin’s publication on the origin of species. Interest in the fossil record of man and its significance for the unraveling of human evolution became evident almost at once. Human fossils such as the Gibraltar and Neanderthal skulls (both discovered just before Darwin’s publication and virtually ignored at the time for the lack of an intellectual readiness to see their importance) now took on a new meaning and eventually became recognized as appropriate for physical anthropological techniques which were concerned with comparative human anatomy. Thus, although many of the specialists in the area of human evolution were drawn from older and well-established academic disciplines such as anatomy, medicine, and paleontology, their special interest in the fossil record of man was generally regarded as falling within the category of physical anthropology and served to widen and enrich the subject.

Race, comparative human anatomy (with special emphasis on osteology), and human evolution continued to constitute the major concerns of physical anthropology until well into the present century. This does not mean that expansive tendencies into related areas and problems were absent. But for the most part these tentative explorations were abortive either because the intellectual environment was not favorable or for lack of a fruitful methodology. Broca, for example, examined in an interesting, but ultimately sterile, way the problem of hybridism in man. Without the benefit of modern genetics, this inquiry lacked the foundations for a solid development and now has only historical interest.

Methodology. During the nineteenth century, physical anthropology established its classic techniques for measuring the human form; they remained the primary instruments for its research until well into the twentieth century. Data were obtained by a series of standardized observations and measurements. The observations, mainly on qualitative characteristics or those not readily open to measurement, were evaluated by reference to graded scales and charts meant to cover the range of variation. The direct measurements were taken from fixed landmarks wherever these could be established or from areas that could be described with some degree of precision. As variations of technique and measurement proliferated and interfered with comparability of results, it became necessary to establish some uniformity of practice. Several international congresses dealt with this problem, the last one being held at Monaco, in 1911.

The techniques along these lines that were designed for osteological material are collectively known as osteometry. Those adapted especially for living subjects are grouped under anthropometry.

Physical anthropology was one of the first of the biological disciplines to make extensive use of mathematics, particularly statistics. The problem of dealing with populations, the necessity of using a sampling process, and ultimately the need to devise methods of handling large bodies of data derived from an array of individuals required mathematical evaluation. The suitability of the data of physical anthropology for statistical treatment was especially recognized by Karl Pearson. Almost from the beginning the pages of Biometrika, a journal he established in 1900, were opened to papers that exploited this potentiality, and he himself contributed notably to this development (see Pearson 1920; Wilks 1941).

Twentieth-century trends

In the present century the field of physical anthropology has grown rapidly to become something closer to a biology of man than it was before. This growth has come about through the development of traditional inquiries and the influence of discoveries in other disciplines.

Postnatal growth, for example, has become a subject closely linked with physical anthropology, in part because it is a phenomenon that contributes to the understanding of human variation, in part because the technique for studying growth was derived originally from the anthropometric measures devised by physical anthropologists, and perhaps to some extent because it had not been already firmly attached to some established discipline. More recently, physical anthropologists have explored the patterns of over-all growth and have investigated a wide variety of growth problems relating to specific areas of the body, such as the dentition and face. They have established norms. They have examined the factors that affect growth and have sought to discover the dynamics in the growth process that throw light on various anomalies and abnormalities.

Discoveries in other areas of science, such as genetics, have also had profound effects upon the recent developments in physical anthropology. In the study of isohemagglutination, the observation of the Hirszfelds in 1916 that various populations exhibited distinct and different frequencies of the ABO blood groups led shortly afterwards to a very active interest of physical anthropologists in exploring this approach as a means of clarifying racial differentiation (see Hirszfeld & Hirszfeld 1919). Field studies in great number were undertaken to determine world-wide variations in these reactions and to seek some basis for their use in identifying racial differences. As other systems of blood groups, such as M-N and Rh, and various hematological characters were discovered, they were added to what has now become an impressive array of hematological variations arising from genetic mutations. And although blood typing and hematology have developed into highly specialized areas with their own problems and goals, they continue to be employed as tools by physical anthropologists, not only in studying racial problems but also in analyzing the dynamics of population genetics. A considerable portion of the physical anthropological literature is still devoted to these applications.

It is perhaps worth noting that the earlier expectation that blood groups would provide a genetic and quantitative basis for racial classification replacing older methods has not yet been borne out. The use of blood groups alone has thus far proven to be less than adequate for this purpose, although they retain much value as adjunct criteria.

Perhaps even more significant in the recent history of this discipline has been the general impact of genetics upon it. Beginning as early as 1905, when Farabee published a study on the inheritance of brachydactyly in man—the first on human heredity based on Mendelian genetics—physical anthropologists have applied genetic principles to their problems and have gained, thereby, considerable insight into processes that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Similarly, Eugen Fischer, a decade after the effective establishment of genetics as a branch of biology, applied this new method to the study of racial hybridism in man with his study of the Rehobother bastards (1913). This was followed by Shapiro’s field study (1929) on the English-Tahitian descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty, Rodenwaldt’s investigation of the hybrids on Kisar (1927), and Davenport and Steggerda’s work on the Negro-white mixtures on Jamaica (1929). At present, population genetics is the aspect of genetics that is being applied most fruitfully to many areas traditionally cultivated by physical anthropology. As in other interdisciplinary contacts, the resulting interactions have created a flow of geneticists into physical anthropology and of physical anthropologists into genetics.

Population genetics has been especially valuable in providing insights and leads in the study of the racial differentiation of mankind. The dynamic interaction between mutation and environmental selection and the processes of adaptation that result from this are seen as basic to human racial differentiation, just as they are to animal differentiation. The effects of isolation and genetic drift have become as valid for human groups as they are for Drosophila. Even some of the older concepts of race have been swept away. One can no longer entertain the view, once widely held, that the races of man were originally uniform and that the present heterogeneity of human populations is entirely the product of miscegenation. According to the conclusions drawn from studies based on population genetics, it is more likely that some degree of polymorphism has always been characteristic of human races.

Illustrative of the tendency of physical anthropologists to make use of other specialties that promise to throw light on traditional problems is their use of physiological approaches to race. Although not much has as yet been done along this line, some work shows promise. In particular, the adaptative responses of man to various environments is an area of much significance but one which is as yet little known. Enough, however, has been achieved to indicate that this represents an area fruitful of insights into the biological nature of man.

Another interesting example of the interaction between physical anthropology and other disciplines—in this case medicine and psychiatry—is the field of studies of human constitution. The notion that personality types are recognizable from physical stigmata has existed since Greek antiquity. From this ancient concept came the medieval terminology of “humors” of the body, from which the words “phlegmatic” and “sanguine” are derived. About a century ago, this rather naive and certainly primitive idea began to be re-examined in the effort to find, if possible, a more convincing demonstration of a linkage between body build and variations in behavior, disease, and temperament. The pioneering work of MacAuliffe in France and of Pende in Italy culminated in the system proposed by the psychiatrist Kretschmer (1921) in Germany and was later extended into clinical and diagnostic medicine by Draper in the United States (see Draper et al. 1944). This system envisaged a threefold division of body types—asthenic, athletic, and pyknic—with associated and distinctive types of temperament and susceptibility to specific diseases. It was based upon the assumption that body variations in build were correlated with psychological and physiological patterns of behavior. Although much skepticism existed then, as now, on the validity of this thesis, it has continued to engage the attention of a number of researchers. Sheldon, in particular, has evolved a far more sophisticated and useful classification of body build based on three major variables, which he has termed ectomorphy, mesomorphy, and endomorphy (1940). According to this system each individual can be rated for each component, whereas in earlier schemes most individuals could scarcely be fitted into the extreme types. This is the method preferred by most investigators currently working in this field.

One of the more recent developments in physical anthropology reflects a growing appreciation of the role that culture and social organization have played in human evolution. One form of this trend is the study of primate behavior. It is notable that after a period of development during which physical anthropology had turned increasingly to strictly biological concerns, in turning to the study of the behavior of primates it is, in a sense, renewing its links with anthropology itself.

The pioneer work in this area—beginning with the investigations of Carpenter (1934; 1940) and Zuckerman (1932; 1933)—has recently been carried forward vigorously by a number of students who have not only experimented with the behavior of primates in captivity but have made prolonged and detailed observations of wild animals. Much of this work has been inspired both by the insights into human behavior that such studies may be able to furnish and by the belief that social and behavioral characteristics have played a greater role in human evolution than has been previously appreciated or, at least, identified.

This development, which certainly in part arises from physical anthropology’s continuing interest in human evolution, has, I believe, been stimulated specifically by the great advances made in the last generation in recovering the fossil record of man’s emergence. The important discoveries made in China in the late 1920s and 1930s by Black (1930), Weidenreich (1935), and Pei (1934); the enrichment of the record through the work of von Koenigswald in Java in the 1930s (1950); and the opening of totally new geographic areas and systemic groups in south Africa by Dart and Broom in the 1920s and 1930s mark the beginning of a new era in the study of human fossils (see Dart 1925; Broom & Schepers 1946). The south African fossils (the Australopithecines), in particular, forced a revolutionary re-examination of the older concepts, leading to their rigorous modification to fit the new facts, and in general provided a stimulus to the whole field, which has remained in active ferment ever since. More recently, Leakey’s discoveries relating to early hominids in the vicinity of Olduvai in east Africa have served to sustain this interest (1951; 1959).

From these and other fossils and from the assistance now available from related fields, it is possible to place the appearance of manlike primates at the beginning of the Pleistocene, perhaps as long as 2½ million years ago. Contrary to the older conception of a hominid evolving both in brain and in his adaptation to erect posture pari passu, it is now clearly evident that it was the latter that came first and, in fact, triggered the former. The anatomical evidence that early hominids had gone a long way toward an accommodation to erect posture before much expansion had occurred in the brain is overwhelming. To many students it seems likely that erect posture, by freeing the hands, with their innate capacity for grasping and manipulating objects, opened the way for the development of technology. And this, in turn, as it became part of man’s environment, exerted a selective pressure that was reflected in an expansion of the brain. Such an interplay, with its continuation of a selection for intelligence, was reinforced by social developments and particularly by the perfection of language with its abstract symbolism.

Harry L. Shapiro


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