Thursday, November 18, 2021

What are ... Archaeologists vs Paleontologists vs Anthropologists

 For the next entry into my What are ...? series, I am looking at something that is often confused, the difference between an Archaeologist and a Paleontologist. This confusing was brought up recently when I was reading the question cards in my daughter's game of Dino Math Tracks:

Within the game, there are cards where the person must solve the math word problem in order to figure out how many spaces they can move. This is the card in question:

Archeologists must ship 24 tons of dinosaur bones to the museum. If each truck can hold 2 tons, how many trucks do they need to ship the bones? Move forward that number of spaces.

This brings up a common mistake in everyday life: mistaking what an archaeologist is versus a paleontologist. 

Archaeologist: According to Webster's Dictionary archaeology is the study of past cultures through their surviving relics

This means that an archaeologist studies the remains of civilizations that people leave behind. This can include some things like arrowheads to the pyramids, bowls to clothing, eating utensils to cave dwellings, and everything in between. Archaeologists study the changing human behavior but not the changes in our physical selves. This article puts it perfectly:

... archaeology is the reconstruction of ancient behavior from the things people left behind.

Paleontologists: Paleontology on the other hand is the study of life in past geologic periods, according to Webster's Dictionary.  

This means that paleontologists are focused on the life that once lived and often how it connects to the life that is still around. They can look at the physical remains of the animals and plants to reconstruct what they looked like and how they moved and interacted. They can also look at the behavioral remains left behind like footprints and bite traces to determine how the animals lived. All of this combined will often give paleontologists a fairly good idea of what past environments even looked like. Paleontologists are most often thought of as studying dinosaur bones, but there are many types of life that a paleontologist can study and if there was once something living on this planet that we know about, you can be sure that there was, or is, someone that has studied it. 

The difference here is that paleontologists can study any animal remains, but they don't study the behavioral creations of humans. The question then arises, that is humans are animals, then wouldn't a paleontologist then technically also study humans. Here is where lines start to get blurry and people's definitions may vary but there is a cross specialty that encompasses both worlds, and that is anthropology.

Anthropologists: Anthropology is like the blurry boundary between paleontology and archaeology. Webster's describes anthropology as the science of the origin, early development, and culture of humankind

Anthropologists study the human remains to discover how our species has evolved over time, physically, behaviorally, and culturally. Archaeology, on the other hand, is typically seen as a sub-category of anthropology focusing only on the physical items humans created and left behind, while human paleontology (a.k.a. paleoanthropology) could be seen as another name for the study of the human evolution and remains typically seen as one of the sub-disciplines within the overarching body of  anthropology. 

As this website puts it: The goal of anthropology is to better understand the different cultures of human history and to look for solutions in human problems. Anthropologists use social, biological, and physical science to get a better grasp on human cultures.

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