A Journey Through Physical Anthropology

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Before the 1950s and the great changes Sherwood Washburn made to the field of physical anthropology and anthropology as a whole, the field used to be practiced in a very different way compared to today’s methods. Physical anthropology used to be primarily concerned with classification and typologies when approaching the subject of human and non-human primates and their fossils.

The field was highly centered on measurements and what could be physically observed, hence the name “physical” anthropology. The field of physical anthropology itself was also considerably isolated from other fields of anthropology and similar fields such as evolutionary biology. Being so isolated for a field that should have been full of different opinions and open minds was a problem, and Sherwood Washburn came to recognize that problem, along with several others within the field of physical anthropology. First however, before examining how Washburn started this revolution for change for physical anthropology, we must first explore how he got into that position.

physical anthropology
Sherwood Washburn

Sherwood Washburn completed his undergraduate work at Harvard University and was a student of Earnest Hooton, a physical anthropologist. However, before Washburn even began college, he was already working at a museum of zoology, giving him early exposure to the concept of biology and zoology. Washburn was initially going to major in zoology, but the reason he decided to instead major in anthropology was because he took an anthropology class taught by professor Alfred Tozzer, an anthropologist and a friend of Washburn’s family, and Washburn found himself considerably interested in the field of anthropology (“Sherwood Washburn Interview,” 1984).

Physical Anthropology

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s as he moved from his undergraduate to his graduate degree, Washburn learned much in the field of anthropology, especially so when he went to New York and became familiar with Theodosius Dobzhansky, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist. Dobzhasky in particular greatly influenced Washburn in anthropology and evolution, and they made several contributions together, such as the Cold Springs Harbor symposium in 1950, which may have inspired Washburn’s later ideas of reforming the field of physical anthropology. The studies of race and genetics by some of his colleagues and professors may have also contributed to Washburn’s interest in incorporating different fields, such as genetics, into the field of physical anthropology.

After his time in New York, Sherwood Washburn moved to Chicago in the year of 1948, and he remained there for eleven years. There at the University of Chicago, Washburn met several scholars and practiced anthropology under the conditions and methods the department of anthropology wanted it to be taught and practiced. Washburn especially admired Robert Redfield who was an American anthropologist and ethnolinguist with a particular focus of his work performed in Mexico. Moving in the years of the 1950s, the field of anthropology started to become more popular and wide-spread compared to the earlier form of anthropology which was spread more across small groups of colleagues and friends (“Sherwood Washburn Interview,” 1984).

It was around the year of 1951 when Sherwood Washburn seriously started to realize that the physical anthropology of the time was stuck in its strictly descriptive, methodical, and classifying ways while many other similar surrounding fields were blossoming with exciting new ideas and breakthroughs. From this realization, Washburn decided to make a change in the field of physical anthropology, wanting to take the field out of its isolation and have it collaborate with those of different fields, such as geneticists, social scientists, anatomists, paleontologists, and several others. He wanted physical anthropologists to come up with new ideas and new methods of approaching and viewing their work, and overall he wanted physical anthropology to become a comparative, multi- and inter-disciplinary field focused on helping to form a better understanding of humans and their relatives (Fuentes, 2010).

physical anthropology

It was around this time as well that Washburn’s name started to become more prominent in the world of anthropology, even being part of the Center of Behavioral Science in the years 1956 and 1957. Eventually, Washburn found work as a physical anthropologist at UC Berkeley since he sought a change from his life in Chicago. In addition to anthropology, Washburn also had an interest in primatology, comparative anatomy, and adaptation, which consisted of both studying living primates and their bones for the reasons of understanding the workings of their joints and morphology of their bones in the role of locomotion. These different fields likely helped Washburn to continue promoting an interdisciplinary approach to physical anthropology since such fields, especially primatology, could help bring a better understanding to the evolutionary path of humans and how humans diverged from different primate species.

The Details

Washburn’s change to physical anthropology continued from the 1950s and into the 1980s, and his influence continued still into our modern times. Eventually this movement even helped to change the very name of physical anthropology to biological anthropology. While both of the terms are still used today and are interchangeable, the term “biological” anthropology insinuates that the field is no longer about what can be seen and studied physically.

Today, in contrast to the 1980s, biological anthropology can be studied from an evolutionary, anthropological, holistic, and interdisciplinary perspective concerning the history and condition of human and non-human primates. The field is able to utilize new advanced technologies and methods in order to further its research, such as the role of genomics in understanding allele function and genetic processes, the analysis of mirror neurons in the role of social and cultural learning, and even the field of biocultural anthropology which is of growing importance (Fuentes, 2010).

However, the field of biological anthropology is still not optimal. Ways that the field could continue to improve in the present is having biological anthropologists communicate more with each other and other anthropologists to exchange ideas and outlooks, as well as moving past issues that have divided the field of anthropology. By doing such, biological anthropology will be able to continuously improve itself and its methods as it studies humanity and primates into the future.

Fuentes, Agustin. (2010). The New Biological Anthropology: Bringing Washburn’s Physical Anthropology into 2010 and Beyond—The 2008 AAPA Luncheon Lecture. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. Retrieved May 23, 2018, from http://afuentes.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/fuentesYRBK2010.pdf.

“Sherwood Washburn Interview.” (1984). George A. Smathers Libraries. Retrieved May 23, 2018, from http://www.ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00007883/00001.

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