Linguistic Anthropology – An Overview

A similar subfield to Cultural Anthropology is Linguistic Anthropology. Contrary to popular belief, linguistics is not the study of languages for translation or speaking purposes, rather it is the study of how languages evolve and function within a cultural context. Some subfields of linguistics include:

Linguistic Analysis – the technical study of language

Sociolinguistics – how language influences and is influenced by culture

Ethnolinguistics – the study of languages of specific ethnic groups

Linguistics is a vital aspect of anthropology because there’s a mountain of evidence that suggests language is incredibly influential in the development of culture, and that culture will influence language as well. The popular movie Arrival, which is about a linguist’s interactions with an alien species, touches upon this aspect of linguistic theory. Our thinking is limited by our means of expression—for example some languages have words that cannot be translated into other languages because that concept doesn’t exist in other cultures. While this may seem like a chicken and egg issue, linguists argue that the blade cuts both ways. We may not have a word for a concept because we do not have the concept at all, but our inability to express concepts verbally also then hinders the development of those concepts within our culture. A famous example of this is the Inuit lexicon for snow. The context of their lifestyle necessitates 50 or so terms for snow, where English-speaking peoples would struggle to find even 10, and would correspondingly struggle to perceive the distinctions between these 50 types of snow that the Inuit can easily see. Another Inuit example is the concept of ‘raw’ vs. ‘cooked.’ In order to maintain a healthy intake of vitamins, the Inuit will eat ‘raw’ seal meat. It wasn’t until English-speaking people tried to communicate with them that they had any notion of what ‘raw’ even was, let alone that some people didn’t like ‘raw’ food!  Linguistic anthropologists will also look at how subcultures’ dialects develop and differ. My mentor in undergrad, the late Dr. Denise Szafran, ran a module on AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and the many means of communication utilized in rap music.  And this type of analysis can extend to all forms of dialects, including combinations of languages called creoles, the independent languages formed through the combination of preexisting languages (i.e. French Creole), or pidgins, a combination of a speaker’s first language and second language.

Referring back to my post on social anthropology, linguistics can be conducted as an ethnographic study with language as its focus. In this way, linguistics is absolutely interconnected with social anthropology, but linguistics is very much interconnected with biological anthropology as well. Primatologists will examine primate communication in the context of linguistics, often looking for similarities to human language to inform our understanding of evolution and the brain. There have been many fascinating studies on vervet monkeys and how they communicate danger to one another. Their alarm-call system is the closest thing to human language that primatologists have yet observed, with specific cries for leopards, hawks, and snakes, each stimulating a different group reaction.Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 7.48.35 PM

Primatologists have also explored communication with other apes through sign language. Chimps especially are quite good at learning the meaning of each sign, like the famous Washoe, but cannot seem to figure out syntax, the rules of sentence structure, and therefore cannot form proper sentences. They can spontaneously recombine signs, but in a disjointed way.

This aspect of anthropological research has also been used to study human development. For example, we’ve discovered that babies can easily understand sign language and respond to parents in sign language at 6 months old, before they are able to physically speak. This is because infant throats are formed to safely breathe and swallow simultaneously, which makes speech impossible.

The technical aspect of linguistic analysis also seeks to inform the evolution of the brain and human development, as well as human migration and cultural diffusion. The well-known Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of language as a genetic imperative–that all human brains are set up to form language, and will do so with regardless of the quality of language exposure.  Meaning that all languages will have universal similarities in grammar, if not phonetics (how words sound).  We can also tell how different languages are interconnected, giving us insight into divergence of groups across the world.

Language Map

Any questions about Linguistic Anthropology?

As always, let me know!

Who were the Neanderthals?

After several weeks of eager anticipation, yesterday was finally the day.

Yesterday I received my results for 23andMe, the DNA analysis programme that gives you the lowdown on your ancestry and any genetic health risk factors you may carry.
And while my results were pretty much as I suspected, I found out something pretty cool. According to 23andMe, 2.6% of my genes come from Neanderthals!
Now that’s actually slightly lower than average for someone with who is predominantly European. But what exactly are Neanderthals and why are they so cool?

If you managed to take a look at my post about evolution from last week, you’ll remember that anthropologists have actually found a number of our evolutionary ancestors. Most of these ancestors died out before anatomically modern humans were on the scene — but not so with the Neanderthal! We had a pretty significant overlap, which we clearly made the most of in a reproductive sense. As we (humans) could successfully mate with Neanderthals, this makes us fellow subspecies of human. Modern humans are known as Homo sapiens sapiens, and Neanderthals are known as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. There has been a lot of back and forth between their species classification, but the DNA evidence proves we could and did mate with them, so they are absolutely positively a subspecies.  So if anyone, including an anthropologist, gives you flack for this subspecies attribution–send them to me.
Neanderthals are called this because the first fossil associated with the subspecies, or holotype, was found in the Neander Valley in Germany. Although other Neanderthal remains had been found before this, they were only later categorised as such.  Here is the geographical area that Neanderthals were thought to inhabit courtesy of Wikipedia:

So what makes a Neanderthal different from a modern human? There are a few notable differences.
Neanderthals had prominent supraorbital tori and occipital buns, meaning that their foreheads and the base of their skulls were quite large. And because their skulls were shaped differently, their brain architecture was also different. In fact, their cranial capacity was higher than ours, but because the parts of the brain responsible for speech, like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, were smaller in Neanderthals they would not have had the same capabilities for language.

Image source 

In this sense, the stereotypical grunting caveman is correct. BUT there are several studies that indicate their hyoid bone, the bone in our throat, was situated higher than ours. This would make their voices correspondingly higher! So imagine a caveman with a high pitched grunt instead.
Neanderthals also had larger nasal apertures (where your nose goes). This is an adaptation to cold weather, as the air they breathed through their noses was warmed more effectively before entering their lungs. And we can still see a similar adaptation in populations from colder climates, although not as big as the Neanderthals.


Image source Fun fact: this is Gibraltar I, and my absolute favourite. I grew up with a cast of it in my house.

Neanderthals were barrel chested and their arms burly. This has been attributed to spear thrusting but also to the scraping of animal skins. Click here for some interesting reading on the subject.

As part of the genus Homo, Neanderthals were tool makers and are also thought to have made clothing, the only other animal to have made clothing besides us.

This brings us to the question of cultural diffusion.  We know that humans and Neanderthals were living near each other and having sex, what we don’t quite know is how much influence there really was between the two groups in terms of material culture. We can identify tool making techniques that are associated with one subspecies or the other, what is slightly strange is that there seems to be little or no crossover–even when we know they were interacting with each other.  Some anthropologists argue that this makes us different species, but that is a remnant of archaic palaeoanthropological theory (more on that later).

Some anthropologists posit that the reason why humans eventually outlived Neanderthals is that we are better at learning new techniques and thinking outside the box, and Neanderthals just couldn’t keep up. But it’s still unclear. We may have just killed them all off. What we know is that they went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

Have any Neanderthal related questions? Let me know!

Biological Anthropology – An Overview

Biological anthropology is one of the four major subfields of anthropology. Very generally, biological anthropology examines the biological development of human beings–meaning that we study everything from human evolution, our evolutionary cousins (other primates), comparative anatomy, osteology (the study of bones), and ecology.

Here are just some of the many subfields of biological anthropology:

Palaeoanthropology – the study of human evolution and diversity
Primatology – the study of nonhuman primates
Forensic Anthropology – the use of human osteology in a legal context
Bioarchaeology – the study of human remains from archaeological sites
Human Ecology – the study of human interaction with the environment

All of these subjects seek to shed light on our history as organisms, but they also have direct and practical relevance to our world today. A major aspect of primatology, for example, is primate conservation. And forensic anthropology is used all over the world by police departments, major investigative parties after war, and in the wake of mass casualty events such as terrorism or natural disaster.
Very often, the practical subfields of biological anthropology are considered ‘anthropology’s jock-y younger brothers’ because we lack the theoretical framework that social anthropology and archaeology have in spades. But more on that later.

For everybody in New York City (my hometown), there’s a fantastic permanent exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History called the Hall of Human Origins. It gives the lowdown on all of the major themes of biological anthropology and its many subfields. Also worth looking at is the Hall of Primates for just a small taste of the enormous diversity found in our taxonomical order.

It also provides an opportunity to compare your body to those of other apes!amnh

Notice the similar brachial morphology between the human and the orangutan!


On a solemn note:

Anthropology as a whole had a considerable role in proliferation of racist tropes in the late 19th century and well into the 20th. But biological anthropology’s involvement in the proliferation of these tropes is arguably the most sordid. Because we were able to mask our racial bias in the cloak of science, our research into the different ‘races’ of humans could be used as ‘proof’ of white and male supremacy. I put the word race in quotations because in the world of biology race literally means species! Anthropologists had a hand in creating this narrative. One particularly infamous study measured the cranial capacity of different races with the intention of proving that white people had bigger brains and were therefore smarter. This is, of course, bad science and there remains no relationship between brain size and intelligence anyway. When anthropologists began examining human evolution, their research was used to ‘prove’ that people of colour were less evolved and therefore more closely related to other primates than white people were. And these stereotypes have managed to stick around until today! There is also evidence that members of the Nazi Party utilised the same osteological collections that anthropologists rely on today to search for observable differences in the skeleton based on race. So it is critical that biological anthropologists acknowledge their discipline’s history and stand in staunch academic opposition to its lingering effects.

Have any questions about biological anthropology? As always, feel free to leave a comment or message me on the contact page.

The Evolution Debate

Another subfield of biological anthropology that I’ve worked in is palaeoanthropology. Which, very simply, is the study of human evolution.

And one of the most frustrating things I’ve experienced as an anthropologist is not evolution denial, but the very clear inability of people who do believe in evolution to give good answers to the questions put to them by those evolution deniers. I’ve seen Bill Maher laugh off a question posed by Michelle Bachmann about evolution, not because it was too ridiculous to acknowledge but because he didn’t know the answer.  Even people like Bill Nye have trouble articulating answers in an accessible way.  

Evolution has become a dirty word.  Most people who aren’t convinced by evolution have no problem believing in other things that are dependent on evolution. 

If you believe in the flu vaccine, you believe in evolution.

If you believe in DNA, you believe in evolution.

And if you believe that the rhinoceros is almost extinct, then you also believe in evolution. 

I’ll explain.

We know that animals don’t just go extinct for no reason, something always happens to drive that animal to extinction — like drought or overhunting. Another term for that something is pressure. So the pressure for the rhino in this hypothetical scenario could be poachers who take their horns.

We also know that while some animals are on the verge of extinction, other animals are not. This means some animals aren’t affected by this particular pressure like the rhinos. If poachers don’t bother with hippos because they don’t have horns, hippos will last longer than rhinos. 

Recap: some animals can survive more easily in an environment than others.

Most people can accept this, so let’s continue.  

If a rhino was born without a horn, poachers would have no interest in it and leave it alone. Then that rhino could go off and have hornless babies which the poachers would have no interest in either.  Now suddenly, you have a bunch of hornless rhinos happily hanging around while the rhinos with horns dwindle.  

There you go. That’s it. This is all that Darwin was describing (except with birds) and it’s called selection. 

An animal is born with a mutation, like a bird with a strange beak or a rhino without a horn. When this mutation is useful, like it makes it easier to find food or it makes you unattractive to poachers, then that animal can live longer and have more babies who then might also have this mutation.  These useful mutations are called adaptations. 

And there are different types of selection. When the pressure is environmental, we call it natural selection. When humans breed plants or animals for certain traits, it’s called artificial selection. 

Darwin had no sense of how these mutations happened or were passed on, but we do!  When we discovered DNA, everything really fell into place.  We could see that all of our traits were written in our genetics and could be passed down to our children.

The most stunning example of this selection process can be seen (yes actually seen!) when tracking antibiotic resistant bacteria. Please go watch this clip.  

The antibiotic is the pressure, like the poacher to the rhino, and we can see where and when the bacteria mutate, like the hornless rhino.  Flu vaccines get updated every year because the virus adapts very quickly, much in the same way the E. coli adapts in this video.  

Now how does all of this translate to the bigger picture? 

The more rhino babies born without horns, and the more poachers kill rhinos with horns, the more likely it becomes for hornless rhinos to end up mating with other hornless rhinos, as they survive better. If we were to fast forward a million years, the hornless gene could become so separated from the horn gene that if a hornless rhino were to come across a horned rhino and mate, they either would have a sterile baby or no baby at all.  This is called speciation.

These new species will face other pressures, adapt, and maybe speciate again! And this goes on and on and on until the world ends. Which is why we have such a wonderfully diverse world.  All it would take to create the world we see today is one microbe in the right conditions and time. Reproduction, mutation, and adaptation have been happening every single second of every single day for millions and millions of years.

Some common questions/statements I’ve encountered:

Michelle Bachman’s question mentioned above was ‘why are there still monkeys if humans evolved from them?’ 

Good question, Michelle! The monkeys we evolved from existed millions and millions of years ago. We did not evolve from current species of monkey.  We are evolutionary cousins, if you will, with current monkeys because we share what’s called a common ancestor. Say there was another rhino who was born with a mutation that gave it camouflage to hide from poachers. Then it went through the same selection process as the hornless rhino to become its own species.  The hornless rhino and this camouflage rhino would share a common ancestor.   

Another common question is ‘where is the missing link?’ 

Well get ready to have your mind blown.  There is no missing link and there has never been.  We have found numerous remains of our evolutionary ancestors! Each species we’ve identified has multiple samples associated with it.  Before Darwin was even on the scene, neanderthal remains had been discovered!  So never from the inception of evolution as a concept has there been a missing link.

A common misconception is that ‘Lucy,’ the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton from Ethiopia, is the only sample we have. This could not be less true. Lucy is just one great example of many from that particular species.

‘Link’ is also an inappropriate word.  As you can see from the antibiotic resistant bacteria, evolution happens in many places at once. Instead of thinking about evolution as a line, we like to use the phrase rivers and tributaries.  And you can quite literally see what we mean by that as you watch the video.

‘Evolution is just a theory!’  

The word theory has a different definition in the scientific community. A theory is a scientific explanation that is supported by all existing evidence and continues to be supported by new research.  Decrying evolution as ‘just a theory’ is equivalent to saying you don’t believe in gravity because general relativity is ‘just a theory.’

‘I believe in adaptation but not evolution.’

They are literally the same thing.


Do you have any questions about evolution? Have you ever had to explain evolution to someone before?  Tell me about your experiences in the comments or on the contact page!