Department of Anthropology
Biological anthropology as an academic discipline is intimately connected with and informed by a number of other discplines including evolutionary biology, genetics, nutrition and health sciences, physiology, medicine, sedimentary geology, and ecology. To fully understand who we are and our place on Earth, one must begin with the evolutionary principles established by Darwin and expanded over the last century. From "so simple a beginning" we study some of the most fascinating and thought provoking questions of our time. Where and when did our species emerge? How do butchery and sedimentary processes leave distinctly different markings on Paleolithic animal bones and inform our understanding of early humans as hunters or scavengers? How does variability in any number of physical attributes arise? How is adult metabolism and health impacted by early life experiences, including social discrimination and stress? The most exciting and meaningful advances today are coming at the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. The more our students are encouraged to think critically, creatively, and interdisciplinarily, the more likely they are to challenge the assumptions and rigid thinking of previous generations to create new solutions to age old problems.
This course examines how evolutionary processes (both biological and cultural) have shaped human history and may provide insight into human behavior today. We begin with an overview of evolutionary processes in order to appreciate the ground rules, as we understand them today, for the past hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years of hominin evolution. From such a foundation, we will spring forward to discuss topics as diverse as diet and brain size, the significance of tool making and taming fire, bipedal locomotion and endurance running, sex and gender, mitochondrial Eve and global dispersal, the origins of language, evolution of taste and food choice, the mystery of Neanderthals, and other relevant topics. The goal is to appreciate how humans, as a biological and cultural species, have been shaped by the same natural processes affecting all other species on our planet, how we have learned to cope with environmental stressors in novel ways, and how we may be evolving at an accelerated rate!
This course will examine who we are through both evolutionary and comparative contexts. We will investigate the evolution of our species (and others) though the study of genetics, inheritance, population biology, and the basic principles of evolution. We will also rely heavily on the comparative method; that is, we will draw on evidence from other animals, particularly the non- human primates and review their ecology, anatomy, and behavior to gain insights into our own evolutionary past. Next, we'll spend a signficant amount of time examining the evidence of human evolution (i.e. the fossil record). Finally, we examine the evolution of human adaptability and investigate the ways in which populations come to be adapted to their local contexts. Through these multiple lines of evidence we hope to create a single picture of the emergence and continuing evolution of our species, Homo sapiens.
There is no more intimate connection between humans and the world we inhabit than through the food we consume. Humans, and all organisms on Earth, literally construct and maintain themselves from environmental building blocks. Those building blocks have changed dramatically over the past 2 million years, shaping and being shaped by human evolution. Making informed decisions about what to eat today requires an understanding of that past: how the foods we have consumed for hundreds of generations have shaped our biology and influenced our cultural institutions. In this course, we will examine human’s relationship with food from our tree-dwelling origins to a grocery shopping present. When did our ancestors first begin to cook, and why? Who were the first farmers, and where? What kind of diet(s) have we as a species evolved to eat? Which is better, “free-range” or “cage-free” chicken? Skim or 2% milk? Organic or local apples? What do we mean by "better"? We face a myriad of such questions everyday and through this course we will begin to examine the numerous factors that [should] influence our purchasing and consuming behavior.
Understanding the evolutionary history of our species is critical if we are to make informed decisions about our diet, health, and environment (consciously and unconsciously constructed). Fossils, tools, artifacts of symbolic and/or functional importance, and DNA document that history. From the age of apes, to the origins of our human lineage (hominins), our genus (Homo), and our species (sapiens) we’ll explore the evidence and discuss the how and why of the most significant transitions in human form and behavior over the last 5+ million years. Making sense of that evidence, however, requires deepening our understanding of the mechanisms underlying evolutionary change. While Darwin broadly defined those mechanisms over 150 years ago, recent advances continue to accumulate and paint an ever more complex but ever more articulate picture of how, "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (Darwin, Origin of Species). In addition to surveying the evidence of our evolutionary history, this course will conduct weekly discussions on recent advances in evolutionary theory and conclude with an extended discussion on the degree to which these processes continue to operate in our culturally buffered environment.
Foundations of Biological Anthropology is one of the core courses for Anthropology Graduate Students at Purdue. Over the course of the semester students will gain an advanced overview of the seminal research and perspectives that have shaped the discipline of Biological Anthropology. In this course, we’ll begin with an extended discussion of evolutionary theory before focusing on the three traditional sub-fields: primatology, paleoanthropology, and human biology. Throughout, we will ask how each discovery or idea articulates with previous discoveries and ideas, what the implications of these works are for understanding what it is to be human, and what the applications (if any) might be for problems or challenges in the world today. Students will gain advanced understanding of the breadth of research in biological anthropology through critical reading and discussion of peer reviewed literature, and have opportunities to teach and gain feedback on select topics. Given varied experience and career objectives, students will choose the format of their project: a formal research project, a white paper translating discoveries in biological anthropology to affect policy, or additional teaching opportunities. This course assumes students will enter with a basic understanding of biology (including evolution and genetics), and regular participation in discussion is required.