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While reading articles or research papers, the terms Anthropology, Archaeology and History appear alongside each other.
For many of us, it can be confusing to deal with three different terms that relate to the same goal – telling the story of humans. But there must be a good reason for having three different terms. Let me try and explain the differences and the similarities in this podcast.
Anthropology is a broad term that covers the study of humanity as a whole. In fact, it is so broad a subject that it is broken down into three smaller disciplines – biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and archaeology.
Biological anthropology is concerned with the study of how humans evolved physically. A good example would be the study of the development of some of the core human traits such as speech as well as bipedalism or walking on two feet took place in response to certain environmental and social needs. Biological anthropology also can tell us when modern humans or Sapiens would have separated from the other branches of human species such as the Neanderthals. In short, biological anthropology tells us the story of the human body.
Cultural Anthropology, on the other hand, studies the evolution of human culture and society. Ethnography and Ethnology are its two branches that study both, development of individual cultures and also the comparative differences and similarities between cultures. A good example of ethnography would be the study of the lifestyle of present day tribes living in the forests of Chattisgarh, whereas ethnology would compare how human relationships like marriage or parenthood are viewed across different cultures.
The third and last branch of anthropology is archaeology, which in a way is the past tense of cultural anthropology. Let me explain this. While cultural anthropology examines human culture in in the present context, archaeology studies the living habits of people in the past. For example, an archaeologist uses material remains such as the metal objects from an old civilization’s ruins to find out what kind of technologies were available to those people in the past, or studying images painted on the walls of a cave may tell archaeologists about belief systems, rituals, or even the plants and animals that existed in the environment of prehistoric people. Archaeology also plays a big role in conservation of heritage. Long forgotten buildings, neglected monuments, remains of art objects, all of these can be brought back into public memory by archaeological investigations. A good example of this is the 2017 discovery of inscriptions from the 14th century, on a stone tablet in Mumbai that changed the image of this city from being an obscure group of islands until the arrival of the Portuguese, to a well-formed kingdom with political links to the Sultans in Delhi. However, this also sometimes raises political issues because it establishes new theories that replace age old assumptions that cultures or societies may hold religiously about themselves as well as others.
Now, coming to history, in most cultures the memory of the ancient past usually flowed down verbally upto a certain time, that is before written records came into being. Usually historians rely on written records because they have a sense of authenticity and traceability. This does not mean that written records are always the ultimate truth, since biases can creep into any written history. Historians may also rely on paintings and other forms of visual imagery sometimes that supports the written records, to get more insights into social customs and habits. Historians mostly try to build a chronological sequence of events that explains the farthest point going back into the human journey. Pre-history is considered to be the period for which written records may not be available. For example, while we have a lot of material and biological evidence for the existence of the Harappan civilization, but there is no deciphered written material that tells us exactly who were these people and how do they connect with later Indian civilization. Their script remains undeciphered and hence we push this period also into the pre-historic or proto-historic zone. In the event of their script being deciphered, this definition may change in the future. Another example could be of societies or even civilizations whose written history did not come into being as late as the colonial period, when Europeans brought the tradition of documenting history to these cultures. However, this does not mean that they do not have a history. The story of their culture may exist in media like songs, hymns and other cultural traditions that preserve the earliest memories including their genealogies or family trees. A good example is that of the aboriginal community in Australia, where nomadic tribes recorded the maps of their migratory paths in the songs that were passed down from one generation to the next. These are called Song Lines, and there’s a beautiful book by the same title written by well-known journalist and travel writer, Bruce Chatwin.
Where history faces a limitation, archaeology comes into the picture, and that is true for 99% of the time that human life has existed on this planet. The earliest written records available to us go back only 5000 years in time whereas human origins go back nearly 3 million years. Therefore, the only way to reconstruct the human story is through archaeological studies that include collecting data from human settlements, formulating hypothesis, testing the hypothesis against more recent and comparable data, and devising a model that summarizes the patterns visible in the data. For example, to ascertain that a certain site belongs to a particular culture, archaeology compares the material artefacts discovered on that site with those found in other sites of that period. This can establish if the same cultural axis ran through these settlements. A good example is that of stone age sites, which can be grouped into a similar period or not by examining the design of the tools, the way the tools have been cut out of stone, the serrations visible on the edges of the tools, the precision achievable as a result of the design and so on. Therefore, archaeology does deal with the past, much like history, but in a more scientific manner than history does because it reduces the cultural bias. Archaeology does not tell us what to think of a particular culture or period, but it provides us with a frame of reference through which we can build a picture of human history by connecting the available facts.
In short, archaeology is a branch of humanity as well as science that combines the expertise of the scientist with that of the historian.
Especially, in large civilizations, a complex imagination exists that is built upon the foundations of history, mythology and legends. A scientific approach can help not only to separate one from the other, but also draw connections between these foundations. For example, Religion is a big part of most people’s life. To explain the origins of religion, archaeology can help us go back in time even when written records did not exist for some of the religions as they were born. The archaeology of religion tells us how humans employed this belief system to regulate social and economic processes of society. It can provide clues that explain certain belief systems that may have evolved from pre-historic times into present times. For example, to understand the formation of cults, one has to gather material evidence relating to their rituals. Images, symbols, and sites of worship can tell us not only how rituals were performed but also their purpose. For example, large halls with facilities to produce light, sound and smell, serve as evidence that there was a general idea of focusing attention towards ritual acts. Likewise, the sacrificing of animals that is evident in skeletal remains in large numbers, indicates the belief in a supernatural being to whom these offerings were made. By presenting all this data, archaeology allows us to develop an image where our beliefs can be explained without being judgmental or critical of their existence.
I hope the difference and the relationship between anthropology, archaeology and history is somewhat clear from this podcast. So, if you have any further questions for me, please leave a voice message on my podcast site and I will try to answer these questions in my forthcoming episodes.