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Athabasca University

Biological Anthropology

Biological, or physical, anthropology extends the study of what it is to be human through time and space to focus on humans from a biological perspective, within an evolutionary framework. In their research, biological/physical anthropologists explore three broad areas: human biology and variability, the anatomy and behaviour of non-human primates, and the fossilized evidence supporting the concept of human evolution. Thus, the field of biological anthropology encompasses several subdisciplines:

  • Paleoanthropology is the study of ancient humans (their anatomy, behaviour, ecology and chronology), particularly as evidenced in the fossil record over the last 4–5 million years.
  • Anthropometry, the measurement of human body parts, focuses on identifying and evaluating physical variability among living and extinct human populations.
  • Genetics, a branch of biology dealing with variability among organisms and the mechanisms for transmission of variable characteristics from parent to offspring, allows biological anthropologists to explain how evolutionary processes work.
  • Primatology is the study of the behaviour and biology of those species most closely related to us, the nonhuman primates (prosimians, monkeys and apes); anthropologists use this information on social and reproductive behaviour, infant care, communication, diet, and locomotion in order to better understand how our own behaviours have evolved.
  • Osteology is the study of skeletal material; human osteology focuses on the interpretation of the skeletal remains of past human populations, while paleoanthropologists use the same techniques to study ancient humans. Paleopathology is an important branch of osteology that studies abnormalities, or traces of disease, nutritional deficiencies, and injury in human skeletal remains.
  • Forensic anthropology is an applied anthropological approach dealing with legal questions. Forensic anthropologists are often asked to aid in the identification of human remains, and have recently been involved in such tragedies as the crash of a Swissair plane at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, and the investigation of “disappeared persons” in Argentina.

In their quest to understand our nature as a single species with substantial genetic and physical diversity, as well as our recent and common ancestry, biological anthropologists collaborate not only with other anthropologists, but also with specialists from other disciplines such as chemistry, geology and botany.

AU offers an introductory course in biological anthropology (ANTH 278), a course in human sexuality (SOSC 378) that includes components of human biology, and a course in primate behaviour (ANTH 310).


Updated January 27 2014 by Student & Academic Services

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