1. What is Anthropology?


January 12, 2024


Listen to Anthro.mp3

Welcome to the first episode of Anthro.mp3! Want a starting point for jumping into the world of anthropology? This is a great place to begin. Come meet our team and hear about our passion.



Claire: Hello friends! And welcome to Anthro.mp3! We are a group of University of Massachusetts Amherst students who are passionate about anthropology and want to share this love with as great an audience as possible. Hence, this podcast! This podcast is part of a larger intercollegiate collaboration for outreach and education in anthropology. Anthro hub is a website full of “all things Anthro”, but in fun and creative formats. Make sure to check it out to look at some incredible blog posts and creative works made by students from not just UMass Amherst, but Sage Russell University and SUNY Albany as well! My name is Claire, and I’ll be one of your hosts for today’s episode!

Amber:  My name is Amber, and I’ll be your other host for today. We also have the rest of our wonderful team here: our third hosts Stonks, and our tech team, Emily, Phuong, and Yueming. Thank you so much to all of them, because it’s thanks to them and our advisor Sarah Reedy, from the anthropology department, as well as all the other groups of people who are helping us that this podcast can be a reality. Anthro hub is really cool, so as Claire said, please do check it out if you can. And our headlining episode today is just a little and basically an intro to anthropology. So we’re gonna give you all an overview of anthropology as a subject. We’re gonna be chatting about the different subfields and just letting you know an idea of what is anthropology.

Claire: So first, like Amber said, we’re just going to explain what exactly anthropology is, if you’ve never heard of it before, or even if you have, it’s always a good review. So to give an index card definition of Anthro, it is the examination of human variation over time and also space. It is a study of what exactly makes us human. This covers, you know, physical evolution, sociopolitical intricacies, and much much more. There are four main subfields of anthropology, these being biological, cultural, linguistic, and archaeological, all of which we’ll be introducing you to today. Personally, I love cultural and archaeological anthropology. But you’ll hear more about that later. Amber, do you have a favorite?

Amber: Yes, my favorite subfield is actually a subfield of biological anthropology. It’s called Medical Anthropology. And so I’m really fascinated with human evolution and like human health and things like that. But going back to biological anthropology, which is one of the four subfields, what is it? It’s basically the study of humans through a biological lens. The American Association of Biological Anthropologists say that there are two concentrations that bring biological anthropology to life. These two are human evolution and “human biosocial variation”. What even is biosocial variation? You might be wondering, right? Well, I just give a quick note about it. In terms of what the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences has to say, biosocial means a broad concept referencing the dynamic, bidirectional interactions between biological phenomenons and social relationships and contexts, which constitute processes of human development over the life course.

Now, I know that might have been a little complicated since I had a lot of academic terms. So I tried to explain biosocial from the point of view of the student. So, biosocial is most loosely defined as the relationship between social interactions of humans and how those are related to biological interactions and phenomena throughout the duration of a human’s life. Biological Anthropology has some really cool life applications and can be seen in forensic anthropology, which is one of the main biological anthropology subfields that focuses on human remains and identifying diseases people as well as looking at bones. In terms of research, there’s a lot of laboratories that are working on biological anthropology topics, colleges, and even Smithsonian or other museums all do work in biological anthropology. It’s really cool and there’s a lot of opportunities to study primates as well and other creatures. And again, like I was saying about the forensics, studying bonds and a lot of bones.

Claire:  I actually remember taking a class in biological anthropology, Amber. I think it was just the one that I’ve taken. And funny enough, the only thing that really really stuck with me was dental formulas and the specificities of those in primates. You know, like, how homosapiens, how we, have two incisors, one canine, two pre molars and three molars in each quadrant of our mouth. Not a clue why, but that is what really just stuck into my brain. It’s like a little worm up in the air.

Amber:  That’s so funny, because I think with anthropology, you always kind of learn new things that end up sticking in your head forever. For me, actually, I realized I had a hidden talent when I took a forensic class with Professor Perez last semester He had us rearrange human remains and side them in the correct side. And for some reason, I just instinctively knew how to assemble the human remains into like the entire skeleton. So…

Claire: That’s really cool. That sounds like you found your hidden talent.

Amber: Exactly. It’s kind of a little creepy talent. But…

Claire: That’s super awesome, though. I love that. I love being able to find just a little thing that you realize you’re really good at, or you really enjoy. For me, to move on to cultural anthropology, that’s something that I really love. It’s the study of culture, but it really is just such a broad topic and it encompasses many things, from archaeology to museum work, to book writing, and also research. It can even be utilized in the making of shoes, believe it or not. While the most widely recognized form of cultural anthropology is archeology, the power behind the research of cultural anthropology is stronger than you might think. It’s a driving force behind museums like the Smithsonian that you were talking about, which are one of the most frequently utilized sources of learning and education in the world. Cultural anthropologists are also what bring the archeological finds to life. They give names to mummies, and explain how certain things worked in the past, as well as the present, linking those really really nicely. A lot of their work and research is what you would read on placards at museums describing certain exhibits.

To understand cultural anthropology, we do need to understand what is meant when we say “culture”. The really cool thing about humans is that we have this innate ability to not only create, but to practice and share traditions, beliefs, lifestyle practices, etcetera. There’s variation in these ways of life over time and space and that is what cultural anthropologists investigate. Society is studied by anthropologists mainly through ethnographic projects and research and participant observation. Ethnographic fieldwork is the long term study of and work within a community during which the researcher will participate in traditions and the life of locals, existing in a community and improving rapport with the people in order to learn more about. Cultural anthropologists are seen everywhere, in museums like we mentioned earlier, but also in social work the office and teaching jobs both local and abroad.

Amber: Linguistic Anthropology focuses on the nature of human languages in the context of the cultures that birthed them, scholars in the Linguistic Anthropology field, they try to understand the social and cultural foundations of language, while also exploring social cultural formations that are actually based in linguistic practices. In Linguistic Anthropology, there are four subfields. The first one is Descriptive Linguistics, which studies structure of languages. The second subfield is called ethno linguistic, and ethno linguistics looks at how languages and culture intertwine. Third is Historical Linguistics, which studies how languages change over time due to historical context. The fourth is social linguistics, which studies language in different social contexts. This field looks at the semiotic processes which make up social interactions and establishments looking at words and their meaning making in terms of political ideology, folklore, cultural epistemology, and other social elements and belief systems is a big part of linguistic anthropology. The documentation of languages is base is the baseline of linguistics, because in order to be able to study languages, especially ones that are no longer spoken, researchers have to first document them in order to be able to write down the alphabet and be able to translate be it tablets or squirrels. Once documentation is done, contextualization is important too. So to contextualize the language studied, you have to look at aspects of identity formation that occur through linguistics. Linguistic researchers might also study similarities and differences between languages that share common ancestors or proto languages. What I think is really cool about linguistics is that researchers categorize different languages in groupings of language families, for example, French, Spanish and Italian are often called Romance languages that share common Latin roots. The Afro Asiatic family is the one that I personally am fascinated with, because it includes more than 400 languages spoken in Africa and in Asia, that share common ancestry. In fact, Arabic and Hebrew, which are both mostly spoken in the Middle East originated from Africa and are part of this Afro Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic language family. Amharic, which is spoken in Ethiopia is one of the oldest Afro Asiatic languages. And what is interesting is that people from North Africa, East Africa, and people from the Middle East, have not only got similarities in terms of languages that share common ancestors, but also genetically. In fact, anthropologists who are studying biological anthropology have found that throughout the last 1000s of years, there has been admixture due to a back and forth movement of populations from Northeast Africa and Middle East. So it’s really cool to look at how genetics, culture and language are all, you know, intertwines.

Claire: Do you happen to speak any other languages, Amber? because I speak a little German, but I’m definitely not fluent. I would like to be.

Amber: I actually, I do speak a few other languages. I speak French, Spanish, Arabic, as well as Denisha, which is a mixture of Arabic and amazi indigenous North African languages. In Linguistic Anthropology, there’s this type of language known as a Creole. Creole is a word that means more than one language being combined together. Oftentimes, we think of Haitian when we think of Creole, because a lot of people know about Haitian Creole. But that’s not the only language like that. There’s a lot of languages around the world that combine more than one language into one. And oftentimes, that happens when there is, you know, different historical elements, like certain conquests or certain like, cultural shifts that happen that lead to people mixing their language with another one.

Claire: Right! Oh, that’s really interesting. And that’s sort of what leads us to, you know, regional dialects and such as well, right?

Amber: Yeah, exactly. And actually, fun fact about English since you say you speak German. English is actually a Germanic language that evolved from German.

Claire: That’s so cool. I need to take more classes in linguistics.

Amber: I actually have never taken a linguistic anthropology class, I really want to as well.

Claire: We’ll need to take one together, for sure. That’ll be so fun.

Speaking of language, actually, the way we discover the origins of is through our final subfield archaeology. So archaeology is more than just digging in dirt and harnessing your inner Indiana Jones. It’s the study of culture and human existence from hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ago. After we dig up all the cool stuff, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists work together to determine their meanings, what they suggest about the development of human life and society as a whole. Archaeologists look at migration possibilities, social life, technological advancements, all sorts of cool stuff. So here we look at the material remains of human activity in order to understand the intricacies of our ancestors long long ago. Fieldwork is a very important part of archaeology, you know, the whole digging in dirt thing. Excavations are organized digs where anthropologists carefully look for tangible evidence of human existence. We find many different items that give us clues about how society worked so many years ago, some tell us about diet or structures of hierarchy, even early housing and technology. There are a lot of really awesome opportunities for fieldwork even when you’re still just a student. I’m personally looking at one focused around ceramic material remnants in Greece, because archaeology is passionate mine. The ceramic material remnants are really interesting to me, because they’re sort of from the later Neolithic forward period, Mediterranean wise, because they are the beginnings of culture and tradition as we know it for behaviorally modern humans, which I think is so cool. So Amber, what do you love about anthropology? I need to know.

Amber: Yeah, like I said earlier, medical anthropology is my favorite subfield, especially I’m interested in like archaic humans that are now extinct whose DNA we can find in small amounts in different populations. And also, I’m interested in how admixture with these archaic humans has affected some people’s immune systems. For example, when COVID happened, researchers were saying that populations with higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA were at higher risk of having worse COVID outcomes. So there’s a lot of things that we don’t really know about yet regarding our archaic humans, and how, you know, they affect our health. And the reason for that is because archeology is a field that is very underfunded. And in order to be able to have more, you know, DNA to sequence, we need more archaeologists to be able to find these really really old, sometimes million years old remains. But medical anthropology also looks at things like human health. And for example, I once worked a little bit with Professor Sievert who does research on the link between adipose tissue and hot flashes in postmenopausal woman. That’s something that I didn’t really think at first would be under anthropology, but it actually is, there’s a lot of medical research that is done by medical anthropologist.

Claire: Oh, cool.

Amber: She does a lot of work out here at UMass. So…

Claire: Oh, that’s awesome! I hope we get the chance to like, meet and chat with her. I think that’d be really awesome.

Amber: Yes, having her on this podcast would be very amazing.

Claire: Oh, maybe we have a guest lined up. Anyway, let’s move on to what our tech crew loves about anthropology.

Emily: Hey, I’m Emily. And I’m part of the tech crew. I actually didn’t know what anthropology was until I had to find me sign up for a major for UMass. And it happened to be one of the first majors listed. So I was like, oh, that sounds cool. And I decided to do a quick Google search. And now here I am as an anthropology major. I am mainly interested in archaeology. But I’m also pretty interested in linguistics and cultural anthropology as well. To me anthropology is just the best way to describe my interest in humans. I’ve always loved history. And I also love learning about cultures, both past and present. I love anthropology because of how broad it can be. I can learn so much just through the anthropological lens. I love how I can learn about similarities between everyone and I can even learn about how things I never thought of could affect humans. For example, like, before taking linguistical anthropology class, I never really thought about how much language would affect people. But after taking the class, I now know that both the word choice and how we see the words and how we choose to talk to people can have a serious impact on how people perceive us, and even our own thoughts that we might not realize.

Phuong: Hello, my name is Phuong and I’m still navigating through the different branches of anthropology. But I’ve been most interested in biological anthropology so far, especially primatology, which is like a sub subfield of Anthro. Primates really fascinate me and I love seeing how different species like monkeys, apes are tarsiers live and behave, we can learn a lot about human evolution through them. Monkeys and gorillas especially are so human like and are such smart animals that it makes me wonder what exactly they’re thinking about. A mainly drawn towards primates and tropical Asia like Greater Mekong, as along with conservation of these animals and their environment post war time.

Claire: Again, Hi, I’m Claire, and I’m hooked on archaeology and cultural anthropology. These are two fields that go hand in hand, and I have always been interested in humanity as a whole. I love spending time with people hearing their stories, learning more about what makes us us. I have special interests in mythology, folklore, and storytelling, which is what got me into anthropology in the first place. So stay tuned for some more fun future episodes on those topics.

Speaking of which, that’s all we have for you today. So thanks for tuning into our show. Another thanks to our team members and our collaborators with Anthro hub, especially our tech crew, to stay connected with us. You can find us on Instagram at Anthro.mp3. You can also find our sources transcripts of each episode and more in our Anthro hub show notes. I was one of your hosts today Claire joined by our other host Amber and two of our tech crew, Emily and Phuong. Make sure to tune in next time to further explore the field of anthropology with us again.

Amber: We’d love to also give a special thanks to Leandra Mageski and Olivia Gomez for their amazing graphic art, as well as a big thank you to Ellen McIntyre, for providing the music for this episode. Thank you very much.

Claire: If you enjoyed this episode, you’ll love our next four. We’ll be focusing on each subfield particularly, and holding interviews with professors focused in each specialization. Keep an eye out on our Instagram for future updates on shows, specials and events. Catch us next time and have a great day friends!

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