Home > Programmes > Biological Anthropology

Biological Anthropology

Anthropology is the holistic study of humankind from our early origins to present day societies and cultures. Biological anthropology is a diverse field of study that uses a biocultural perspective to understand human variation, adaptation and evolution through the study of human biology of humans past and present, our non-human primate relatives and extinct hominin ancestors. In the Department of Human Biology, Biological Anthropology research is currently focused on forensic anthropology, human variation, bioarchaeology and molecular anthropology.

Forensic anthropology is an applied science that uses biological anthropological methods to examine skeletonised individuals who have died recently. The human material is either skeletonised or in an advanced stage of decomposition and the analysis often involves sorting co-mingled remains. In South Africa this work is done in conjunction with Forensic Pathology Services and South African Police Services. Once establishing the remains are human, there are two primary aims: 1. Identify the individual 2. Analyse the skeleton for perimortem injuries.

Human variation is the result of genetic variability within our species shaped by the four forces of microevolution: mutation, migration, genetic drift and selection (natural, sexual, and artificial). Variation reflects genetic flexibility and sociocultural and biological adaptations to changing environmental conditions. This area of study is focused on topics such as comparative human growth, skin pigmentation, disease susceptibility and advantage, and trait acquisition.  

Bioarchaeology is the study of human biological remains from archaeological sites with an understanding of their past culture. Primarily this is focused on the study of the human skeleton and teeth and using the biological information these carry about our genetic and environmental histories. Using a population perspective these can be used to reconstruct demographics (age, sex, and stature), health /disease, trauma, physiological stress, activity levels, migration patterns, diet and cultural practices. A biocultural approach is required to understand what the biological indicators meant for those people living in that place and time.

Molecular anthropology uses genetic analytical and laboratory methods to examine the genetic factors involved in humanity and human variation to answer questions related to biological anthropology. For example to explore human migration (origins and tracing history), ancient DNA (plants, animals, hominin evolution, health and disease) and human variation (trait acquisition, disease susceptibility and advantages). This list is by no means exhaustive but a few more concrete examples include: comparing the ancient DNA of Neanderthals to humans, tracing the human lineage to Africa, exploring the origins of tuberculosis in humans, why people who live at high altitude have enlarged hearts and lungs, why some people are lactose intolerant while others are not.