Biological Anthropology

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Biological anthropology is the study of human biology, behavior, and evolution.  Biological anthropologists also study non-human primates and extinct human-like species.

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropologists use their expertise in human anatomy, biology, and the legal process to help solve criminal cases by examining human remains.  They employ techniques that can be applied to any skeleton, whether it is ancient or modern.  Through careful measurement and analysis, anthropologists can estimate the deceased’s age at death, biological sex, stature, and ancestry.  They can also identify evidence of disease, traumatic injury, and other disorders.  Bones can even reveal the diet of the deceased.  Forensic anthropologists use this information to create a biological profile of the individual, which aids in their identification.

Cullowhee, North Carolina is home to the Forest Osteology Research Station (FOREST).  At this facility, forensic anthropologists study taphonomy—the process of decay and burial.  Donated human cadavers are buried in a controlled area of the Blue Ridge Mountains and analyzed over time.  Research at the site focuses on estimating time since death and understanding the impact of the environment on decomposition.  The facility also trains cadaver dogs to locate human remains for law enforcement and search and rescue teams.

When a forensic anthropologist is put on a case, it is usually because the deceased person is unknown.  Environmental forces may have obscured their identity.  In North Carolina, bodies are subjected to intense heat in the summer, freezing cold in the winter, and moisture year round.  North Carolina’s wildlife also affects decomposition, with vultures, opossums, and even bears scavenging remains.  Anthropologists at FOREST investigate the impact of these factors on human remains, leading to information that can aid in police investigations.


Paleoanthropologists use fossils, ancient tools, genetics, and geology to investigate the life histories of ancient primates.  The human lineage first diverged from that of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, around 7 million years ago.  Since then, our lineage—the hominins—evolved and developed all of the important characteristics that make us uniquely human.  By 4 million years ago, hominins walked upright on two legs.  Around 2.6 million years ago, hominins started to create stone tools.  Our ancestors left Africa for the first time 1.8 million years ago.  Perhaps most importantly, hominin brain size rapidly increased around 800,000 years ago.  Modern humans first appeared 200,000 years ago.

No ancient hominins lived in North Carolina until modern humans crossed over from Asia during the most recent Ice Age.  Long before hominins evolved, however, primates from the Teilhardina genus lived in North America.  These ancient creatures resembled modern tarsiers, a primitive primate from Southeast Asia.  In the Eocene Epoch, spanning 56 to 33.9 million years ago, Teilhardina ranged from Asia to Europe to North America.  They likely lived in North Carolina, though part of the state was underwater at that time.

Fossils offer clues to how Teilhardina lived.  The size of their remains show that they were tiny creatures, about the size of a mouse.  Their fossilized teeth indicate that they ate a diet of fruits, tree sap, and insects.  Ankle and toe fossils show that they were nimble tree-climbers.  No fossils are found after the end of Eocene, suggesting that a cooling climate led to the extinction of North American primates.

Medical Anthropology

Medical anthropologists research how health systems operate, who uses them, and their cultural importance.  To do this, they study medicine at many scales.  A small scale approach might track the healthcare choices of a single individual to map the relationships between family members, doctors, and other patients.  A mid-range study might look at how wild plants are used in a rural community to treat diseases.  A large scale study might compare cultural norms regarding illness between different societies.  With this range of approaches, medical anthropologists gain unique perspectives on health, disease, and medicine.

About 3000 years ago, tobacco was brought to North Carolina after being domesticated in South America.  By the time Europeans were introduced to the plant in the 15th and 16th centuries, indigenous peoples had been smoking it ceremonially for thousands of years.  Europeans dropped the ritual surrounding its use and instead considered it a kind of medicine.  Sensing a business opportunity, merchants exported the plant to the rest of the world where it was smoked in pipes, chewed as quids, and taken nasally as snuff.

North Carolina’s mix of manufacturing and agriculture led to an explosion of cigarette production during the industrial revolution.  This new emphasis on rolling tobacco came to define North Carolina’s smoking culture, which was again exported globally.  Since the 1960s, people have smoked North Carolina cigarettes around the world.  However, the perception of tobacco is changing.  Many people no longer consider smoking to be medicinal. However, tobacco’s social role in each culture is unique.  Consequentially, medical anthropologists have documented many different attitudes about smoking that continue to shape health policy throughout the world.