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What is Physical Anthropology?
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Physical anthropology can be a fun, interesting and lucrative career field. But, what is physical anthropology? This article will answer that question and many more.

Physical anthropology is an ever-growing and ever-changing field that can lead to a lot of opportunities. Of course, one could pretty much figure out that it’s a type of scientific study just from the name. Physical anthropology is an exciting, interesting field in which one could constantly change their research areas so as to never get bored. And, it can take researchers to lots of exotic locations, or let them choose to never leave their research lab. It’s completely at the anthropologist’s discretion. There are very few other careers in which you would meet more people, go to more places, or have more opportunities to not only learn, but teach others what you’ve learned. But, what is physical anthropology? By the end of this article, you’ll have the answer to that question and many more, as well as some online education resources.

What is Physical Anthropology?
Physical anthropology, also called biological anthropology, is a unique blend of several studies, such as sociology, biology and many other sciences and social studies. The reason that there are two different names for the field is that it used to only be referred to as physical anthropology, and it only focused on physical variations and differences in humans. Now, the term biological anthropology is more widely used and encompasses physical variations, diet, nutrition, genetics and social aspects of society. Basically, the term “biological anthropology” covers more areas of research than physical anthropology does.
There are two main conceptual branches that are currently the most studied among physical anthropologists: human evolution and human biosocial variation. These may seem like limited areas of study, but they cover an expansive array of topics. As a physical anthropologist, one could study biology, psychology, sociology and archaeology, among other things. They could study nearly any social gathering or phenomenon, as well. And, their studies and research could take them to places all around the world, as they could choose to study nearly any human social group.
By studying physical anthropology from an evolutionary standpoint, we learn not just about people’s biological make-up, but how they have adapted and changed in order to survive and replenish the population.
What Can a Physical Anthropologist Do?
Primatology is one study among physical anthropologists. In order to understand human cultures and behaviors, they study other primates, like apes and monkeys. This is because they are fairly closely related to humans. Aside from shedding light on our own behaviors, it also gives us insight into how humans have evolved and how we may continue to evolve.
Physical anthropologists don’t just study living creatures. They use archaeology to learn about ancient people and civilizations, as well. They do this by unearthing the skeletal remains and fossils of our ancient ancestors. This is called Paleoanthropology. Through this, we are learning more and more about ancient homonids and our origins. For instance, we’ve learned approximately when humans began to stand upright and walk. We’re finding out more about our history all the time, and there’s still a lot of it that we don’t fully know.
They study the living, as well, and not just primates and fossils. By studying the biology of living people and cultures, physical anthropologists can help to explain some of the mysteries of the world, like how some peoples have adapted to cold or harsh climate and environmental stresses.. And, by studying what makes people in foreign lands sick, sometimes they discover new bacterial organisms or never-before discovered viruses. For instance, Dr. Carlton Gajdusek discovered a new form of organism in New Guinea, and along with it a new class of organisms that were infectious. It earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Anthropometry is an interesting area of physical anthropology. It’s the study of different body parts and their sizes to determine how humans are evolving. It studies people of various cultures, environments and ethnicities to see if any of these factors may have an effect on accelerated or decelerated evolution.
Ethnogrophy is a study of cultures and Western societies. They learn how various Western subcultures think and behave. They mostly work for government or private agencies who hire them to do research. Their research can not only help to form new social policies, but understand and control the spread of diseases, perform census activities and help develop new crowd control techniques in some areas.
Forensic anthropology deals largely with identifying people through their biological remains. It was done by studying bones of both humans and non-humans so that a forensic anthropologist could identify whether or not the bones they were given to study were human or not. They now not only use bone fragments, blood stains and samples, foot, hand and fingerprints to find out who the deceased was, their physical traits, etc. Through bones, they can tell how tall a person was, whether they were male or female, how old they were, and if they were women, how many children they’d had, along with an approximate time of death. They can also sometimes use biological evidence to identify criminals, as well.
These are only some of the areas of study and research that physical anthropologists study. And each of these areas of study open up new opportunities and career fields. For instance, not only could a Paleoanthropologist get jobs in physical anthropology, but archaeology, teaching, science, etc. A Primatologist could get jobs in biology, zoology, or anthropology. So, it pays to pick a type of specialization so that you’ll have more career options.
What Environments Do Physical Anthropologists Work in and How Much Do They Make?
A physical anthropologist has a lot of career options. If they choose to teach, they can be employed by colleges, universities, or even high schools, anywhere in the country. Lots of high schools are teaching some degree of anthropology now, even if it’s just part of social studies courses. But more and more are teaching separate anthropology classes, as well. And, many community colleges offer anthropology courses, too. So, there are lots of different educational institutions that one could choose to teach at. And, depending on what they specialize in, they can work in anthropology, sociology, biology, anatomy, human biology, medical school, psychology or zoology departments. They can work for various government agencies or branches. They can work for museums, too, like the Smithsonian Institution. Or, they could even do forensic consultation for law enforcement agencies, helping to identify bodies through skeletal remains or DNA fingerprinting. (Like the hit tv show Bones.)
Physical anthropology is an interesting career field that’s ever-changing. You’re not likely to get bored with it. And, lots of physical anthropologists do what is known as “field research”. As the name suggests, the research takes place outside of a lab, taking anthropologists to exotic locales all over the world to learn about people, their cultures, their biologies and their social interactions. Basically, they go anywhere a unique or interesting biological or social problem or phenomenon occurs. You would also have a unique chance to discuss your research and findings with people of all ages, from different places.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists physical anthropologists in the more broad category of anthropology. Data from 2011 suggests that an average salary was $59,040 that year. This number has gone up over the years, too. In 2016, the anthropologists’ base salary is listed at $63,190. The lowest of those salaries that they recorded were around $48,240. It’s worth noting that 75% of anthropologists made more than that, as well. And, at nearly $50,000 a year, that’s still an impressive salary to make.
Online Physical Anthropology Courses
EdX is a great choice when looking for physical anthropology courses online. It was started as a collaboration between Harvard University and MIT in 2012. Since then, it has grown and expanded considerably. They offer online learning from several of what are considered to be the world’s best colleges, institutions and universities.
They offer a wide variety of courses that are updated and change frequently. There is a long list of categories to choose from. The EdX learning system is designed to be open source, meaning that a lot, if not all of the material is free. It also means that educators can upload a variety of materials, including audio, video, text and more.
So, if you’re considering a career in physical anthropology, or have ever asked the question “what is physical anthropology?” there’s really no reason not to learn more and sign up. It only takes a few minutes to register. And then you can dive in and begin searching through courses.

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