Anthropology

Anthropology (from greek ἄνθρωπος ànthropos “man” and λόγος, lògos “speech, doctrine” then literally: “study of man”) is a scientific branch developed especially in the modern era that studies the human being from different perspectives (social, cultural, morphological, psycho-evolutionary, sociological, artistic-expressive, philosophical-religious), investigating its various behaviors within society; born as a discipline within biology, has later acquired also an important humanistic value.

Branches of anthropology

  • Biological atropology
  • Cognitive anthropology
  • Criminal anthropology
  • Dialogic anthropology
  • Interpretive anthropology
  • Linguistic anthropology
  • Visual anthropology

Historical notes

Interest in man and his cultural products practically dates back to classical civilizations (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Arabs). Descriptions of social customs, morphological aspects and customs of “foreign” peoples, made by travelers and historians, were quite frequent, but only since the eighteenth century took a systematic aspect. The first to consider man as part of the animal kingdom was C. Linnaeus, who defined a genus Homo with only the species Homo sapiens; the interest in man as a “thinking animal” involved also men of letters and philosophers as I. Kant, but those who began to lay the foundations of a new science were G. L. Buffon and J. F. Blumenbach in the second half of the eighteenth century. On their way, various scholars began the work of objectifying observations by applying a rigorously experimental methodology: P. Camper began studies on craniometry (1774); G. Cuvier introduced the measurement of the facial angle (1795); G. Combe that of anthropological diameters (1831); S. G. Morton created a specialized branch, craniology (1839); A. A. Retzius introduced rigorous methods for determining cephalic indices (1843).

At the same time, P. Flourens established in Paris (1833) a course in anatomy and natural history of man, which was expanded (1839) by A. Serres to include research in psychology. The first teaching at the university level of anthropology is due to the French A. de Quatrefages that in 1855 established a chair of anthropology in Paris; the success of these studies led to the foundation, always in Paris, by P. Broca, the first Society of Anthropology (1859) around which gathered scholars of international renown including the English Thuran and Devis and the German K. E. Bear. The first one that extended the searches also to the cultural aspects of the “primitive” societies was the Italian G. Nicolucci (1857) that published a work remained of great historical interest and that in 1860 instituted the first Italian chair of anthropology, in Pavia.

With the affirmation of the evolutionary theory of C. Darwin (1859) the anthropological research had a remarkable impulse, facilitated by the new discoveries of the biology and by the multiplication of the researches on the field among the populations so-called “primitive”. There was also a flourishing of social, economic and psychological studies that led to a close collaboration between anthropology and the new science that was emerging, ethnology.

In 1869 the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnography and Prehistory was founded, whose research methodologies and studies tied together these three disciplines; this criterion was followed (and in part still is today) by numerous scholars who have left treatises of great interest. Very soon, the use of rigorous methods and techniques allowed anthropology to overcome the “descriptive” phase and to objectify itself in theoretical and applied science: A. Quételet introduced the concept of average man, as a human type of reference; that is, he defined a man whose anthropological characters would serve as a comparison for all possible real variables.

The comparative-statistical method became the norm in anthropological studies, giving rise to one of the most important branches of this science: anthropometry. In 1876, in Paris, P. Broca, A. de Quatrefages and E. T. Hamy founded the famous School of Anthropology, which was followed by similar institutions in various countries: Broca is also responsible for the introduction of analytical methods based on objective data referred to the living (physical anthropology). In the same period, the Italian C. Lombroso elaborated the principles of the so-called “criminal anthropology” and contributed to the formation of a new methodology, the “constitutionalism”, based on a set of anthropometric, psychological and physiological evaluations, which in Italy developed thanks to the contributions of A. De Giovanni, G. Viola and N. Pende.

On the basis of the results that were being developed, several classifications of human types (always defined as races) were proposed, including those of T. H. Huxley (1870), G. Fritsh (1881), A. de Quatrefages (1889), but the first organic treatise of anthropology, which collected the successes and developments of this new science, was written by the French P. Topinard (1885, Éléments d’anthropologie générale). Remarkable influence also had the Italian schools of anthropology, in particular the Italian Society of Anthropology (established in Florence by P. Mantegazza, in 1871) and especially the Roman Society of Anthropology, founded in Rome in 1893 by G. Sergi: to this last one, supporter of the polygenetic hypothesis of the origins of man, we owe also the unveiling of the clamorous false of the man of Pilt Down.

Already at the beginning of the twentieth century anthropology was an established science that included many scholars in every part of the world: the methodologies of investigation could use the discoveries and acquisitions of all biological sciences; E. Fisher applied and verified Mendel’s laws on man (1913), while L. Hirschfeld highlighted the importance of serological and hematological characters (1919).

Essential contributions were made by German researchers (R. Wirchow, G. Fritsh, F. von Luschan, F. Fischer, E. F. von Eickstedt), Italians (G. Sergi, V. Giuffrida-Ruggeri, G. Sera), Swiss (R. Martin, K. Seller), U.S. (W. G. Boyd, A. Hrdlička, C. B. Davenport), French (P.- M. Boule, J. Deniker, H. Montagu), Dutch (F. Weindereich, G. H. R. von Konigswald) as well as English A. Keith and the Soviet V. I. Bunak. The new elaborations and acquisitions then led to increasingly accurate descriptions of man and the revision of various classifications of human groups, including those of J. Deniker (1900), C. H. Stratz (1904), F. Ratzel (1914), G.-A. Montandon (1928), E. F. von Eickstedt (1937), E. A. Hooton (1946), H. V. Vallois (1948), R. Biasutti (1958).

After the fifties of the twentieth century, the impetuous development of genetics and biochemistry, the elaboration, especially by the Americans, of the countless anthropometric data collected since the nineteenth century, the multiplication of new and more extensive methodological investigations on living human groups, the discovery of countless fossils of man, even in ancient times, led to a profound transformation of anthropology. XIX, the multiplication of new and more extensive methodological investigations on living human groups, the discovery of countless fossil remains of man, even of ancient times, led to a profound transformation of anthropology, which practically went articulated in three areas often well separated: biological anthropology, paleoanthropology and cultural anthropology.

Today anthropology uses all the methodologies of other disciplines, from statistics to computer science, from nuclear medicine to biochemistry and physiology, making use of the contribution of sciences such as molecular biology, genetics, pathophysiology, comparative anatomy and even geology (for the reconstruction of natural environments). The parallel studies conducted on primates (J. T. Laitman, C. G. Sibley, R. R. Stanyon and others) have assumed great importance, especially in the United States, where large centers are dedicated exclusively to experimental research on species closer to man, in order to determine the causes that led to the diversification of hominids.

Moreover, research on the nervous system is becoming more and more intense, in the comparison between primates and man. The use of electronic calculators, allowing to correlate in all possible ways classes of measures of considerable size, has opened the possibility to abolish the limits between the various acquisitions on man, leading to a more realistic view of its complex reality. By now we speak of a “numerical taxonomy” (R. R. Sokal) that has partially revolutionized the classical canons of classifications acquired by zoology; thus, with the use of electronic processing it has been possible to establish more complete relationships between the various fossil findings in paleoanthropology and to make interpolations between biochemical, physiological, anthropometric and osteometric data in living human groups.

The recent developments of anthropology in the attempt, positive, to place also the phenomena related to human biology in a perspective of cause-effect research, on the one hand allow a reconsideration in dynamic terms, and then an undoubted enhancement of the impressive wealth of analytical data available, on the other hand favor a more appropriate placement of anthropology in the more general addresses of modern biological sciences. The very identity of anthropology and its role within the biological disciplines are thus called into question: no longer limited, in fact, to an eminently systematic and descriptive function, contemporary anthropology tends to be increasingly configured as a science of synthesis of the many disciplines that have as their object the study of man.

Numerous scholars have contributed to this renewal, often biologists such as G. G. Simpson and T. Dobzhansky, among whom should be noted: C. S. Coon, E. A. Hooton, N. Wolansky, V. H. Muller, W. Gieseler, O. Vershuer, J. Weninger, R. Lehman, J. Corrias, S. Sergi, F. Facchini, A. E. Mourant, H. V. Vallois, J. Hiernaux, F. Sarasin, Y. G. Rizkov, V. A. Šerenieteva, J. S. Weiner. Thanks to them and others, alongside traditional areas of study such as auxology (introduced by P. Godin) and constitutionalism (reinvigorated and relaunched, in particular by the English school the first and the second by the North American school), other fields of study are placed, such as the study of microevolutionary dynamics of isolated human populations, based not only on anthropometry, serology and hematology, but also on demography, cultural anthropology, human ethology and clinical epidemiology, as well as linguistics and historical anthropology.

This complex of investigations contributes, by means of refined techniques of statistical elaboration, to define the dynamics of intra- and intergroup differentiation of the various populations, extending the field of investigation also to the genetic relations existing not only among the present human groups but also among the extinct ones, up to reach (by means of the comparative method) the interpretation of the most ancient fossil remains. It was thus possible, for example, to demonstrate that the differentiation of current human types is quite recent: the morphological differences do not appear therefore more sufficient to prove a remote antiquity of the races, as they fall within the possible variables of a polytypical species such as humans.

In recent times, human ethology has brought significant contributions (E. Eibl Eibesfeldt), favoring that renewal of anthropological sciences aimed at restoring unity to anthropology, which, despite being a biological discipline, retains a high humanistic component precisely because of the implications concerning the behavior of its subject of study: man. The desire to improve the knowledge of the relationship between the biology of human beings and environmental factors originates a line of studies aimed at the realization of a human ecology in progressive departure from the research of evolutionary processes; the privileged object of investigation becomes the complex balance that binds the biological man to the other components of his ecosystem.

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