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Biological Anthropology

Anthropology is the holistic study of humankind from our early origins to present day societies and cultures. Biological anthropology is a scientific discipline using biological and behavioural aspects of human beings to study human societies, cultures and their development. It is a biosocial science that incorporates information from related non-human primates, and extinct hominin ancestors along with what is known in modern human populations to understand past and present people.

In biological anthropology, human evolution and factors responsible for us becoming human are used to contextualise biological changes in the human body. Concepts of speciation and adaptation are foundational to the biocultural framework used to analyse variation in modern humans. Anthropology has been critical in the development of sound ethical and theoretical research practices in human biological studies using human skeletal tissues and human remains. Knowledge of detailed human osteology and odontology are foundational to the field of biological anthropology. Critical biological anthropology skills include: the ability to identify and side human bones; identify adult and primary dentition; distinguish human from non-human animal bones; detect bone and dental abnormalities; understand the range of natural human variation; estimate a biological profile (sex, age, stature, pathology). Biological anthropologists are also skilled in human body recovery and estimating postmortem interval (time-since-death), which can help identify the person and their context. There are several sub-disciplines within biological anthropology: forensic anthropology, bioarchaeology, anthropological genetics and medical anthropology/human biology.

Forensic anthropology involves the application of biological anthropology methods to a medico-legal context. The aim is to assist law enforcement who seek to identify an individual from skeletonised, heavily decomposed and/or burnt remains. This applied science is focused at the level of the individual, identification of the decedent/victim or the perpetuator, and reconstructing the events around the time-of-death. In South Africa this work is done in conjunction with Forensic Pathology Services and South African Police Services.

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 application of biological anthropological techniques to reconstruct the lives of past populations from an archaeological context using skeletal remains. This sub-discipline focuses on anatomical adaptations and variations that occur in bone and teeth in response to everyday life: stress and nutritional deprivation, disease, injury and violent death, activity (patterns and levels), subsistence and sociopolitics. A series of individuals are analysed to understand and reconstruct the lives of past populations.

Anthropological genetics is an area of study that utilizes a holistic anthropological approach and genetic methodology to answer questions of anthropological significance. Key to this discipline is understanding research ethics; the potential positive and negative outcomes that genetic research may have on the people being studied. A basic knowledge of evolutionary principles for the application in modern human genetic research is required, as the field builds on the processes of microevolution and natural selection. Some anthropological genetics topics include: investigating the molecular basis for quantitative traits; human variation; disease resistance and susceptibility; forensics; ancient DNA; and tracing origins and migration.

Medical anthropology attempts to better understand factors that influence human health and wellbeing; the experience and distribution of illness; the prevention and treatment of sickness; healing processes, the social relations of therapy management, and the cultural importance and utilisation of pluralistic medical systems. Medical anthropologists examine how the health of individuals, larger social formations, and the environment are affected by interrelationships between humans and other species; cultural norms and social institutions; micro-and macro-politics; and forces of globalisation as each of these affects local worlds.

What courses should I take?

Biological anthropology requires an interdisciplinary approach, and thus, a varied background in biological science, social science and the arts is beneficial. This is a scientific subject, therefore, good results in maths and life sciences in grade 11 and 12 are required. Biological anthropology is a post-graduate subject, which means that a bachelor’s degree in science (BSc) is essential for you to be considered for admission.

During this BSc, students are encouraged to take a variety of courses in topics on human anatomy and physiology, archaeology, human evolution, cultural anthropology, criminology, zoology, geography, sociology and statistics, which are all useful to this field of study. After obtaining a BSc degree (3 years) students apply for an Honours degree (BMedSci Hons) (1 year) in biological anthropology through the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Every year, a Health Sciences Honours open day is hosted at the Faculty of Health Sciences, and students are encouraged to attend from the 2nd year of their BSc degree so they can understand the application process. After the completion of an Honours degree, students can opt to do a Masters degree (MSc) by research in biological anthropology (2 years) or apply to the MPhil in Biomedical Forensic Science degree (2 years). Normally employment opportunities open-up (police and service sector) with a master’s degree, however, sometimes a PhD is also required (3 years). 

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Postgraduate degree processes