What is Biological or Physical Anthropology? Studying Hominids, Primates, and Ourselves


Home / What is Biological or Physical Anthropology? Studying Hominids, Primates, and Ourselves

Biological anthropology – it’s more than just evolution. Image by ardelfin

What is biological anthropology? If you take the Webster dictionary definition, it means the study of biology within humans – but it is so much more than that.

A biological anthropologist is trying to understand what makes us human, where we came from, and why we are the superior species – in other words what make us different from the other animals.

You may have heard biological anthropology associated with the theory of evolution. In some ways, it is – but there are many other ways that biological anthropologist are studying humans and answering age-old questions.

Technically speaking, biological anthropology, also known as physical anthropology, is a broad subject that is invested in the understanding of the biology of the human species, both past and present.

The main purpose of this branch of science is to answer questions dealing with past and present; explain where our species came from – and possibly where it is headed.

Human Biology: Past, Present, and Future

In the news on occasion, there will be some little bit about a new discovery with “Ardi” or “Lucy” – a skeleton that we can’t immediately identify. “Ardi” and “Lucy” are hominid skeletons that we’ve discovered – skeletons that are distant (thousands of years ago) relatives to us, the humans of today. Scientists see them as our ancestors, and say they are part of our lineage; we share the species name of ‘homo’ with them. There are many different types of hominids, or primates who walked erect on two feet, but all of the different species (including us) share similar characteristics.

Homo Sapiens: Characteristics

We humans came from somewhere – and the study of hominids can explain how we became who we are today. There are specific characters that are associated with homo sapiens and they include bipedalism, which means walking on two feet, shrinking canines in proportion to other species, the use of material tools, an obvious social culture, the use of hunting, and speech for communication.

Understanding Primates

The study of primates is a subgroup of biological anthropology. By understanding primates, we get an idea of how hominids may have behaved. The primates are also our closest relative in the animal kingdom, and studying them allows scientists to understand behavioral difference and similarities between our two species.

Homo sapiens and primates share a common ancestor from approximately seven million years ago. Even though we share a common ancestor and 90-98% of our DNA sequence match (depending on your source) evolution is complex – and biological anthropology can help explain the difference between our two species.

DNA: Understanding Variations Between People

We also study variation within our species in biological anthropology. Understanding how we pass our genes from generation to generation can help explain how changes occur within a species. We use population genetics to explain how the rate of variation can occur. Natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow and migration are all processes which show how some genes are passed on as an important part of survival for various populations.

Physical Anthropology: A Diverse Study

Physical anthropology is a very diverse study – we use this  can used to help explain why humans are the way they are. There are still many questions that we need to answer, so this branch of science will continue to expand. The future of understanding humans is going to continue to raise more and more questions, even as we answer questions we have today. For homo sapiens to continue to survive, understanding the past will provide important answers to insure we can continue on.


Larsen, C. Essentials of Physical Anthropology: Discovering Our Origins. (2010). New York: W.W. Norton & company Inc.

AAPA. American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Accessed September 24, 2013.

National Science Foundation. Biological Anthropology. (2013). Accessed September 24, 2013.

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