Lately I’ve been working with kids at a school this summer switching off between restorative outdoor playtime (our much-loved extended care program) and more structured day camps. All kinds of magic can happen in these places. Today I had the honor of talking with a little five-year old boy out on the playground about mammals, and how they are different from reptiles, birds and other families of life. I used a big word, characteristics, and he stumbled over the pronunciation rather adorably. But through more discussion he got that big word in his hands and started playing with it (this is how we humans learn!), saying “a characteristic of a sheep is fluff,” and, “a zebra has a characteristic like a horse. Is a hippo a mammal? What about a lion? Hey, do any mammals lay eggs? I think a hippo and a lion have a fur characteristic.”
Whenever I get to share knowledge about the animal kingdom, I am brought back to my similar love of anthropology; how our human family tree echoes the branches of greater groups of life reaching out to species and kingdoms. It was during a lull in our conversation when the boy, staring into the big sky and thinking really hard about all this stuff, asked about human characteristics. Sometimes we educators feel awkward when talking about how human groups are different in some ways, but actually more deeply the same in others. And so I turn to anthropology, a way to track our shared human story’s characteristics so that the science of who we are need not be intimidating nor divisive to us.
Anthropology is the study of human cultures, a telling of our ancestral developments which influence us even today. I first became excited about the study of anthropology when I began exploring some of the technologies used by indigenous hunter-gatherer groups: making fire by friction, edible wild plant medicines, and the tracking of animals. Later, I took an introductory anthropology course during college which further illuminated the academic modes of study for this topic. Let me introduce you to a few of those pathways. See if you can imagine how these modes of study can help you better understand our human family, the one you see all around you.
There are four fields of anthropology as recognized by formal scientific study: the cultural, biological, linguistic and archaeological foci. Cultural anthropology studies the cultural aspects of people in groups, such as their social, religious, and moral practices. Biological anthropology studies the physical and evolutionary parts of our human physiology as distinct from our cultural practices. This includes studying near-humans, our fellow primates and our shared fossil records. Linguistic anthropology tracks the patterns of languages across cultures, giving clues as to our ancient movement over time and geography (as well as how the earth’s environments have influenced the development of our many languages). Archaeological anthropology studies cultures of the ancient past, in particular the preliterate cultures making up the mammoth mass of our unwritten history. Techniques used in this field are similar to the research methods used in paleontology, and extends to include paleo-zoology and other interrelated fields.
A smile lit up his face, the child who wanted to know more. “And we humans have characteristics that make us mammals?” It’s good for the heart to encounter this, a child’s preoccupation with needing to know that humanity is related to mammals -that we are mammals- more than any need to worry about the differences among us. When held up to the light of our nonhuman relatives, we all look very much the same. Studying anthropology is a delight for the mind. It serves to inspire in us a deeper joy in our fellow human beings.