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What exactly is Anthropology, and what's it got to do with Archaeology?

A good question indeed.

Anthropology, in the widest sense, is the study of people.  It's not just about people in the small-scale tribal communities of the world, but also about contemporary western cultures.  Anthropology can help us to understand our world in new, insightful ways, and often challenges ideas and beliefs that we otherwise take for granted.

"I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists: all are concerned with...the nature of human beings, about explanations of diversity and similarity."  The great anthropologist Maurice Bloch, 2007 in interview with Maarja Kaaristo, Eurozine magazine

Anthropologists use photography, video and interviews to gather information, and often live with the people they're trying to understand- they call this 'participant-observation'.  Anthropologists believe you can learn a lot more about someone's cultural world when you try and share that world with them.   

Anthropological research covers:

  • contemporary social and cultural studies - like how we organise our families and societies, what does 'British' mean, what is religion, what does it mean to be ill, why do most people not eat dogs?
  • evolutionary concepts -like how humans evolved, how are we genetically related to the other great apes, how are we related to each other?
  • modern human biology - like why are human skin colours so varied, why are so-called pygmies short, how come we can talk, is violence normal, how can we stop the spread of HIV?
  • the philosophy of why and how we believe and feel - like how do we decide right and wrong, are there any universals in human society, when we say we're thinking, or dreaming, what do we mean?

This is by no means an exhaustive list - to give you an example, some recent anthropological work I've read has covered how ideas about 'eating clean' are the 21st century equivalent of wearing corsets, DNA as our modern 'soul', banking culture, how social media is shaping identity, and people's personal hygiene.

And what about Archaeology?

Archaeology uses the material remains of a person, community or culture to try and understand their lives.  This could be people's actual skeletons or preserved bodies, their castles, coins or cookware, the things they stored away, sacrificed, or chucked out with the rubbish.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have a lot in common - we're both fascinated by people, and try to understand the who, what, and most importantly, the why of all the strange things that we humans do around the world.

Archaeology and anthropology are taught together in some universities, and I was lucky enough at Cambridge University to study archaeology, biological anthropology and social anthropology with some of the best experts in the world.  I specialised in social anthropology.