Survey of American Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of human life within past and present populations. Anthropology as a science in America  grew in discussion and experimentation from early America until the present day. There are four subfields through which studies are specialized, these being Physical Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, and Archeology. The methods in these fields have also changed over time. Many of the most impactful anthropological research results not only spread throughout the country but also Europe. Many of these ideas still effect in the country today.

Early America

North American Mound


Many of the first studies done on human variation were done during this time. Many of the studies done in this time were connected with the idea of The Great Chain of Being, which among others organisms ranked types of humans based on their race. According to Joseph and Zierden (2002), the southern colonies were melting pots of the colonists and slaves and immigrants (p.1). Having evidence that the hierarchy of humans was based in biology would make it more logical to continue with the systems already in place. The results of these studies proved that the Great Chain of Being was correct, however these were later found to be fabricated and based in pseudoscience.

As the country expanded west settlers would find large “mounds” that were  architecturally similar to pyramids and temples found in other parts of the world. Upon excavating, skeletal bodies and artefacts were found of past societies. “It first was believed that the structures were too complex for the Native American tribes and believed that societies from somewhere else were responsible” (M. Meyer, personal communication, February 27,2017) . In the time around 1779 however, the field that would later be known as Archeology would be of interest to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson would take many detailed notes and bring the skeletal remains to his home to study.  He concluded that the skulls were no different than ones belonging to natives. He also believed that both had Asiatic origins.

This study was one of the first in the field of Archeology. Jefferson’s methods set a sort of precedence over how physical remains would be handled and studies

America in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The 19th century would not see many new methods or ideas. Small groups of anthropologists would start opening associations to bring their ideas to light. Many of them were anti-slavery and pro-human-rights activists. These groups wouldn’t last long but would retain international ties

The 20th century did see a shift of ideas beginning to emerge. During the first few decades the concept of cultural relativism emerged. One of the most influential figures defending and expanding the concept was Franz Boas. Due to his efforts of changing ethnocentric anthropological practices and pseudoscience,  Boas is considered the “Father of American Anthropology”. Much of his work is associated with anthropological historicism, which is the idea that there were many “cradles of civilization” that accounted for the different types of development. The idea refuted the idea that any one race of human was inherently more intelligent or evolved that the other, instead stating that these differences were due to the environment. In 1902, Boas would help revive what would be known as the American Anthropological Association, whose purpose was to bring together anthropologists as a way to share and spread ideas and information. With these and other advancements the study of anthropology saw a slow but steady growth. Other anthropologists in later years also helped to not only develop the science but to also move studies away from theoretical, “armchair” methods to applied or practicing anthropological methods which employed fieldwork and personally gathering information as means to test hypotheses. In addition to actively participating in fieldwork some anthropologists would publish their findings publicly. Although it was looked down upon by the theoretical anthropologists, “Margaret Mead was unquestionably the best known anthropologist for two-thirds of the 20th century, and even today. She deliberately wrote clear, easy-to-understand English, her books regularly published in mass-market paperbacks…” (Kehoe, Doughty & Peske, 2012).

Anthropologists and American Minority Groups

Wampanoag instructor teaching wigwam construction

At the beginning of the 20th century along with other advancements, it’s stated that anthropologists “were concerned with  gathering as much data  of “vanishing” tribes and their cultures as they could before they disappeared”(Paredes & Booney, 2001).  Anthropologists like James Mooney who studied Eastern Cherokee groups. Methods done  in  the “Boasian” style consisted of immersion and letting the people being studied define their culture. This relates to learning the language, observing games and rituals, as well with building a relationship with the local peoples. However, many of the published books and journals were coded with dismissive language and excluded information they thought was of no importance. These studies would continue to be done and would eventually prove beneficial for both the anthropologists and Native communities in understanding and preserving Native American culture.

Anthropological ties to the African American community and discriminatory treatment are also notable. Early anthropological studies were done with the intention of showing African groups as sub-human. These studies compared skull shape and skeletal composition of European, African, Native American, and Asian people to look for differences and evidence of the claim that Europeans were the most evolved type of human. The studies were fabricated to uphold the popular belief, nevertheless the results depicted Africans as closest to apes and gorillas and therefore sub-human. This not only allowed for the justification of continued slavery but also the notion that the blood of the enslaved African population was tainted and should not be mixed with the European American settlers. Part of this also came from certain religious teachings but the artificial results substantiated  these teachings.

Many of the present day ideas about human race also stem from this time. Modern anthropology disconnects from these ideas and often disproves them however the roots are now centuries deep.  Eugenia Shanklin (1998) states, “the facts that the folk idea of “race” is not dead and racism thrives in our society are partly attributable to the failure of anthropologists to follow through on Boas’s example of public engagement of discourse and debate” (p.671).

Present Day Anthropology

Eva Keller doing fieldwork in Madagascar

In present day America methods and concepts still continue from the time of Boas. Along with international peers, anthropologists today are discovering and noting many different parts of the world. Advances in all subfields can be seen. Physical anthropology is making advances in the study of our primate cousins and discovers get closer to linking us together especially with the discovery of Campbell’s monkeys and Vervet monkeys who have both been found to have a consistent verbal, albeit very simple, words and therefore language disproving the theory that only humans have the ability to “speak”. In addition to this linguistic and cultural anthropology continue to discover language and cultures still not known.



Kehoe, A. B., Doughty, P. L., & Peske, N. K. (2012). Expanding American Anthropology, 1945-1980 : A Generation Reflects. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press.

    This source provides insight into American anthropology after WWII. The documents are meant to portray the individual voices of the original contributors. It explains how the diverse subfields expanded and the discipline of anthropology came into what it is today. In my report I talk about the evolution and expansion of anthropology so I will use this document to explain that turning point. This information was compiled by the American Anthropological Association.

Meyer, M. (2017) personal communication

Paredes, J. A., & Bonney, R. A. (2001). Anthropologists and Indians in the New South. Tuscaloosa Ala: University Alabama Press.

    This source discusses the relationship between anthropologists and Native Americans from the 20th century until now. In my report I depicted events in a type of chronological order and knowing how and where to put important interactions like this make the report more expansive. This eBook was in the library database and the information has to go through checks before it is published.

Shanklin, E. (1998). The Profession of the Color Blind: Sociocultural Anthropology and Racism in the 21st Century. American Anthropologist, 100(3), 669-679. Retrieved from

    This source discusses the concept of race and breaks down why the construct isn’t relevant to anthropologists. My report addresses some of the causes and effects of racism rooted in anthropology and the article provides a lot of insight into that relationship. This information is from an academic journal which goes through review by other professionals and the information is updated to the most accurate information currently before being published.

Zierden, M. A., & Joseph, J. W. (2002). Another’s Country : Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Cultural Interactions in the Southern Colonies. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press.

    This source explains what life was like in colonial days and how the different groups lived there together. This source helps provide a framework for discussion of the colonial era and also provides other researchers perspectives for me to take into account. This source was found in the library database and works like this have to go through many checks so as not to spread false findings.