Cultural dating anthropology

An introduction to Dating System

Physical anthropologists rely on observations and measurements of various physical traits in living humans and animals as well as in fossils. An important tool is the comparative analysis of DNA and other genetic codes, both between different populations of humans and between humans and other animals, especially other primates. Primates are an order of mammals that includes human beings as well as apes and monkeys. Cultural anthropology deals primarily with the development of human societies in the world.

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It is a study of group behavior, the origins of religion, social customs and conventions, technical developments, and family relationships. In describing and analyzing the diverse peoples of the world, cultural anthropologists use the methods, concepts, and data of several subfields and related disciplines.

Ethnography, for example, involves compiling a descriptive study of a particular human society, based mainly on fieldwork. The anthropologist lives with the people who are the object of the study and completely immerses himself in their everyday life while striving to maintain a degree of objective detachment. Linguistics , the study of the history and structure of language, is especially important to cultural anthropologists. Different terms are used to describe the fields of anthropology in North America and Europe. While in North America the term anthropology is used to name the whole subject, in Europe the name ethnology is applied.

The three major subareas of cultural anthropology in North America are historical anthropology or ethnology , prehistory or prehistoric archaeology , and linguistics or linguistic anthropology. In Europe the subareas are ethnology in the strictest sense as the historical description and comparison of groups of humans , prehistory or prehistoric ethnology , and linguistics or linguistic ethnology.

Because anthropology is such a wide-ranging discipline, investigating as it does every facet of all human societies, it must draw upon research done in many other disciplines to form its conclusions.

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Among these disciplines are history, geography, geology, biology, anatomy, genetics, economics, psychology, and sociology, along with linguistics and archaeology. Archaeologists uncover the remains of ancient buildings, tools, pottery, and other artifacts that may help an anthropologist learn about a past culture. As part of their work, anthropologists attempt to determine the age of the fossils and ancient artifacts they study.

They use two basic types of dating methods—relative and absolute. Relative dating is a method in which scientists compare events, artifacts, fossils, or rock layers in order to arrange them in a time sequence in relation to one another. Most forms of absolute dating involve measuring the rate of the radioactive decay of a particular chemical element. Anthropologists often use forms of both relative and absolute dating.

The science of physical anthropology has focused to a great extent on determining the place of human beings in nature, on comparing them with lower primates, and on analyzing differences between humans and their human and nonhuman ancestors. Instead, physical anthropologists today study the gradual variations of a given physical characteristic in human populations found over a geographic area or environment.

In pursuing its goals, physical anthropology has used the sciences of comparative anatomy , evolution , genetics , and archaeology. Anthropologists believed that the model would show a steady progression from lower life forms up through the lower primates apes and monkeys to human beings. Although these studies were presented as representing objective science, they really reflected social attitudes and constructs, not biology.

Modern anthropology recognizes that such categorizing and ranking has no scientific validity. The work of most 19th-century anthropologists was hampered by ignorance in a number of areas. The age of the Earth was unknown, for instance.

Many people, in accordance with the religious teachings of the time, believed it to be about 6, years old. Religious teaching also suggested that all species were created at one time, thus precluding any evolution from lower to higher forms. The first archaeological discoveries indicating the very ancient origins of humankind were not made until the middle of the 19th century, and then many anthropologists ignored or disputed them. The first major breakthrough for anthropologists came in the natural sciences when in Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Evolution was a crucial concept for anthropologists in reaching an understanding of the origins of humans. The idea of natural selection had huge implications for the study of anthropology, though many decades passed before they were fully appreciated. Darwin held that nature selects those forms that are better adapted to a particular geographic zone and way of life. The notion of adaptation implied that organisms changed slowly over millions of years.

In the late 19th century, anthropologists recognized that the human species had an evolutionary history extending back several hundred thousand years, rather than just a few thousand as previously thought. The missing link had not been considered to be a product of evolutionary development but a creature placed between man and ape in the natural order of things.

A major shift in the approach to physical anthropology occurred at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of genetic principles and of the ABO blood groups. Genetics was actually rediscovered. In an Austrian monk, Gregor J. Mendel , had formulated the first laws of heredity and laid the foundation of the science of genetics. His findings were almost entirely ignored at the time.

In three other European botanists arrived at the same conclusions that Mendel had published 35 years earlier, and in researching the literature on the subject they found his work. Genes are the units within sex cells such as the sperm and egg that transmit specific hereditary traits from one generation to the next. The study of inherited traits has become essential to anthropologists in seeking to understand human variations and differences.


Genetics has modified the theory of progressive evolution somewhat, because it has been shown by experiment that there may be genetic reversals—that is, reversions back to traits and characteristics thought to be discarded in the hereditary process. This has enabled anthropologists to investigate blood differences between human populations and to trace early migration patterns. Advances in technologies for analyzing genetic material provided physical anthropologists with invaluable new tools.

By the late 20th century, DNA-testing techniques allowed anthropologists to compare the genetic compositions not only of various groups of humans but also—through the analysis of DNA extracted from fossilized remains—that of human ancestors and related hominids. In , for example, DNA was first sequenced from the remains of a Neanderthal, who lived between 30, and , years ago.

In the early 21st century, as part of the Human Genome Project , scientists sequenced the entire human genome—identifying the chromosomal location of every human gene. Cultural anthropologists are concerned with the origin and development of human societies in all their complexity. Cultural anthropology attempts to devise theories to explain the origin of aspects of various human cultures, each of which has unique features as well as characteristics in common with other societies.

Today its field extends to all forms of human association, from village communities to corporate cultures to urban gangs. Two key perspectives used are those of holism, or understanding society as a complex, interactive whole, and cultural relativism, or the appreciation of cultural phenomena within their own context. Areas of study traditionally include social structure, law, politics, religion, magic, art, and technology.

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  8. There is much debate concerning whether cultural anthropology is a science, an art, or both. Cultural anthropology has given rise to various schools of thought since the 19th century. Among them are evolutionism, historical particularism, diffusionism, functionalism, structuralism, and neo-evolutionism. The theory of biological evolution was first formally presented by Charles Darwin in Darwin argued that man is an animal and has many of the same instincts and needs as do other social animals.

    Darwin stated that successful species adapted to changing environments and that through a process he called natural selection only the most adaptable individuals or groups survive.

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    Nineteenth-century anthropologists applied these theories to their cultural studies. They believed that all societies develop in a universal sequence and that all humans possess the same thought processes and basic mental structure.

    According to Lewis H. Morgan of the United States, the three basic stages that all societies pass through are savagery, barbarism, and civilization.

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    Each of these stages, he believed, is characterized by specific technological developments. A related 19th-century approach that applied the theory of evolution to society focused on different stages of religious thought. Edward Burnett Tylor , an English anthropologist, argued that these stages are animism, or a belief in the soul and in spirits; polytheism, or a belief in more than one god; and monotheism, or a belief in one god.

    Tylor also suggested that some groups could skip particular stages in their cultural development by learning from other cultures.