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Relationship of Prehistoric Archaeology with other branches of Anthropology


Anthropology is the scientific study of humanity in the widest possible sense. It is the holistic study of man. Anthropologists study human being as biological organism and as people with a distinctive and unique characteristic - culture. It studies man of all places of the world as well as man of all times and at all levels of culture. Although man evolved about 3.5 million years back, he invented writing about 5000 years ago. Surely, no discipline claiming itself as the science of man can ignore this part of human society. Within the purviews of anthropology, it is the prehistorian who carry on study of this bulk of human existence. Anthropological researches are carried on to study the human development from the very earliest time as well as on the contemporary human societies.

The subject was originally divided into two major branches namely physical and social-cultural anthropology. Both the branches are again subdivided. Prehistoric archaeology was considered as a subfield of cultural anthropology. Within the last few decades anthropology as a subject has developed tremendously. As a result some new areas of study related to man have become part of anthropology. Along with the study of physical and cultural anthropology the study of prehistoric man and culture has gain increasing attention and became more specialized. This specialize branch is termed as prehistoric archaeology. Another area of anthropology which gains more attention today is the linguistic Anthropology. At present, anthropology comprises four major sub disciplines such as physical anthropology, prehistoric anthropology, linguistic anthropology and ethnology or cultural anthropology. All of these subfields together give anthropologists a broad approach to the study of humanity all over the world, both past and present.

Prehistoric archaeology studies man of the past for which there is no written records. In the absence of written evidence the study of past life and culture depends on material remains left unconsciously by the prehistoric man. Archaeology, the science of material remains, is the main basis of reconstruction of man's prehistoric past. Prehistoric archaeology thus, defined as the systematic study of antiquities as a means of reconstructing prehistoric past is recognized all over the world as a subfield of anthropology. In many countries including India, prehistoric archaeology has traditionally been taught in the department of anthropology. The anthropological approach to archaeological problems of prehistoric period has added a new dimension to prehistoric archaeology.

As a scientific discipline prehistoric archaeology is a recent intellectual development. In fact till 1833, there was no term like prehistory. The term was used for the first time by Tournel and then in 1851, it was Daniel Wilson who used the word in his book "The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland". But within a few decades, especially after Second World War, the subject has developed tremendously. As a result several new subfields or approaches have emerged which gave birth to the concept like New Archaeology, Ethnoarchaeology/ Ethno-Archaeology, Scial Archaeology, Environmental Archaeology, Salvage Archaeology, Underwater/ Marine Archaeology, Forensic Archaeology, Cognative Archaeology, Action Archaeology etc. All of these new areas mainly concentrate to the reconstruction of total life ways of man's prehistoric past. The study of prehistoric archaeology, therefore, is very much related with both physical and social/cultural anthropology as well as linguistic anthropology.

Relationship of Prehistoric Archeology with Physical Anthropology

Physical anthropology is the branch of anthropology that concern with human as a biological species. It is the study of human evolution and bio-logical variation and encompasses the study of fossil man.

It is the study of humankind from the biological perspective. It is concerned among other things, with the study of racial types of man, their differences and distinct features, besides their origin and evolution. It also concerns with the biosocial adaptation of different human population living in different geographical and ecological zones. It involves the study and analysis of human anatomy and anthropometry. Measurement of skulls, jaws and other parts of the human skeleton for comparative study is an important feature of the study. The major areas of interest in physical anthropology have been classified as biological anthropology, human anatomy, human taxonomy, primatology, human palaeontology or palaeoanthropology, Ethnology, population genetics, human ecology, forensic anthropology, medical anthropology etc. Each of these sub-branches of physical anthropology is related directly or indirectly with different areas of archaeological study.

Investigation of human biological evolution presents one of the most important areas for the physical anthropologists. The study of human evolution through the analysis of fossils is called palaeoanthropology. Palaeoanthropologists use a variety of scientific techniques to date, classify and compare fossil bones to determine the links between modern humans and their biological ancestors. For the archaeologists, reconstruction of biological evolution is of equal value. Both physical anthropologists and prehistoric archaeologists may closely work while studying ancient tools, associated finds including fossil remain (s) and other activities of early man, to learn the earlier behavior of man as well as to reconstruct the prehistoric culture(s). According to L.G. Freeman "within the field of anthropology, the discipline called palaeoanthropology, is the study which attempts to discover, describe and interpret evidence for the physical and behavioral evolution of Homo sapiens and his hominid ancestors and relatives". Thus it embraces scholars who called themselves as 'Physical anthropologists' on the one hand and 'Archaeologist or Prehistorians' on the other. It is now clear that palaeoanthropology embraces two distinct fields of studies in its level of specialization. The pre human skeletal remains have to be examined by Paleoanthropologists. They can analyze the data and help in identifying whether the particular skeletal portion is that of a child or an adult, male or a female and the like. The role of Palaeoanthropologists is very important in the excavation of burial sites. The analysis of skeletal remains throws light on the physical and racial characteristics of people. Thus the studies conducted in different parts of the world have traced the expansion of early man throughout the world.

Though the concept of pure racial types has been discarded by modern anthropologist, various attempts have been made by Physical anthropologists . They classify the races in the world on the basis of various characteristics of human population such as head form , face form, shape of nose, eyes, hair, stature, proportion of the body etc. Negroid, Caucasoid or European and Mongoloid are the three major racial types with distinctive physical characteristics, Each of these racial type is concentrated in a particular geographical area. The distribution of each of these types and sub types in different parts of the world would certainly indicate racial migration - an important area of concern for prehistoric archaeologists. For example, the largest concentration of Negroid is found in Africa but this type is also found in the Andaman Islands and the Malaya peninsula. Again, the Mongoloid race predominates in Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia, Russia, Tibet and parts of the south East Asia like Mayanmar, Thailand etc. But they are also found among the Native American Indians and the Eskimos. The Caucusoids with their sub-divisions like the Nordic, the Mediterranean and the Alpine are found in Europe, West Asia, India etc.

The study of racial groups and sub-racial types, behavior traits, blood group etc., form a complex idea and this led to the growing of many subfields in physical anthropology. The study of the racial characteristics of the authors of an ancient civilization would give some clues regarding migration and contacts. For instance, the origin and the diffusion of the megalithic burial practice in south India poses a problem and analysis of the skeletal remains should furnish some evidence regarding racial stock.

Study of skeletal remains found at various archaeological sites would certainly give physical anthropologists an idea of the various racial strains or element that had populated different parts of India at different times. They would also reveal the continuity and discontinuity with the present day population and migrating trends, and the racial affinities of different periods. For example, the report on the skeletal remains of the Brahmagiri megaliths reveal a predominantly Australoid type and a more or less medium statured meso-cephalic medium vaulted, flat-nosed type with powerful upper and lower jaws probably of Scytho-Iranian stock In other proto-historic sites like Harappa Mohenjo-Daro, Lothal and Kalibangan and Neolithic sites like

Burzahom etc. physical anthropologists are joining hands with prehistoric archaeologists in order to know about early racial stock. As the early man were hunters and gatherers, Physical Anthropology study contemporary foraging societies in order to fill in the fragmentary physical evidence left by the early humans. In addition to the study of living human groups, physical anthropologist also study living non human primates( especially monkeys and apes) called primatology for clues so that their chemistry, physiology, morphology (physical structure) and behavior can give us some insights into the understanding of early man.

Relationship of Prehistoric Archaeology with Social/cultural anthropology

Social/Cultural anthropology is another very important branch of anthropology which focuses to study society and culture. This branch of anthropology deals with the social and cultural institutions and tradition of the society. Cultural anthropology is devoted to studying human cultures worldwide, both their similarities and differences. They attempts to study culture in its general sense. The term culture for an anthropologist refers to the customary ways of thinking and behaving of a particular group or society. The culture of a social group, therefore, consists of language, economy, social structure, knowledge, laws, art, customs, food habits, taboos and so forth. Archaeology, anthropological linguistics, ethnology all are directly concern with human culture.

One of the most important aims of modern archaeological anthropology is to reconstruct the total life ways as far as possible. Modern prehistorian not only try to reconstruct the daily life and customs of the prehistoric people, but also try to know the changing aspects of culture. They raise questions like how culture changes and why. In order to do so, it is found that the remains that they dug have their closest counterpart among living primitives, rather than among civilized people. Therefore it was natural for them to come to Anthropologist and especially social anthropologist who gathered information on primitive people.

The new archaeological anthropologist assume that the reconstruction of now defunct modes of cultural adaptations can be considered as the ethnology of prehistoric men, directly comparable to the data collected from modern functioning societies. With this view, life ways of living primitive societies are most frequently studied by intensive ethno-archaeological research methods in order to gain insight into the mechanism of the past cultural adaptation. The need to understand the basis for the reconstruction of past life ways has prompted the growth of new branch of archaeology called Ethno-archaeology and "Action Archaeology". Ethno-archaeological works has great advantage that one starts from present and works back in time taking prehistoric records as guide. It studies man's prehistoric past with the help of ethnographic materials and literature. There are many tribal communities in different parts of the world who are still in the food gathering stage or still manufacture stone tools or practice very primitive method of agriculture.

Like social anthropologist prehistorian also live among those primitive tribes, observe their tool making technique, and other aspects of life which throw a flood of light regarding their prehistoric counterparts. For example, the dry farming method that are practiced in the hills of North east India would illustrate the ancient method of Neolithic agriculture. The circular type of huts used by the present day village folk in Bellary district of Karnataka talked well with the similar ones found in the Neolithic strata at Tekalakotta. Here archaeologists and ethnologists combines together in order to get insight about the past life ways. The action archaeologists directly study functioning primitive societies in the search of clues to the understanding of the past. In this field of enquiry, the distinction between archaeology and anthropology, or more precisely ethnology does not exist. Since archaeology is deeply rooted in the material aspects of past cultures and their related technology, it entreats upon the action archaeologists to understand the implication of primitive technology and in doing so they have to learn the methods of artifact manufacture lost for thousands of years.

Because of the development of such anthropology oriented works in recent decades during 60's onwards there emerged concepts like "Archaeology is Anthropology or it is nothing" as stated by American Archaeologist Willey and Phillips, in 1958 or concepts like "archaeology is the anthropology of the dead" as stated by David Hurst Thomas in 1974, in his book "Predicting the past". Thus the very close relationship between archaeology and social anthropology particularly ethnology is established in ethno-archaeological study.


Anthropology is the scientific study of man. It studies man of all places in the world as well as man of all times and at all levels of culture. At present it has four major branches. They are: Physical Anthropology, Social/Cultural Anthropology, Prehistoric Archeology and Linguistic Anthropology. Within the purview of Anthropology, it is the Prehistoric Archeologists who carry on studies of this bulk of human existence (since its emergence from the animal stock). Hence Prehistoric Archaeology is the story of a region or nation or people or race before it took to or new writing.

As a scientific discipline, Prehistory is a recent development. Now it has developed tremendously and has a number of new approaches or subfields. All these sub fields are concerned with the reconstructions of the ways of life of the early man.

The study of Prehistory of Archaeology is related with Physical and Social/Cultural Anthropology. Like Prehistory Archaeology, Physical Anthropology has also a numbers of sub fields. Of these subfields Palaeo-Anthropology is much closely related with Prehistory Archeology. The role of Palaeo-Anthropologist is very important in the excavations of the burial sites. The experts of this subfield make many attempts to discover, describe and interpret the fossil evidences. Thus the Palaeo Anthropologists are concerned with the study of ancient human beings particularly their biological or physical characteristic and how they evolve.

One of the important areas of interest for the modern Prehistoric Archaeologist is to reconstruct the total life ways of the forgone people. They not only try to reconstruct the daily life ways and the customs of those early men, but also try to know the changing aspects of culture. In other words, one of the most challenging tasks for the modern Prehistoric Archeologists is to know how to interpret material culture in human terms. How were those pots used? Why are some dwellings round and the other square? Here the methods of Prehistoric Archaeology and the ethnography subfield of social/cultural Anthropology) overlap. To get the answer, Ethno-archaeologist live among the contemporary primitives communities, but with specific purpose of understanding how such societies used material culture - how they make tools and the weapons, why they make/build their settlements, what they do and so on.