Two anthropologists excavate a skull from a dig site

An anthropologist could...

Examine the bones of prehistoric humans to determine what their diet was like. A human skeleton arranged on a table Decipher the story behind paintings on an ancient clay pot. A detailed picture drawn on a clay vase
Record the music of an isolated culture to learn more about their history and customs. A person wearing a hat and striped shawl plays a guitar-like instrument Use DNA samples to map the ancient migration of humans around the world. A simplified world map shows letters and arrows drawn across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Where do we come from? Why do we walk upright? Why do we behave the way we do? These are just some of the big and fascinating questions that anthropologists try to answer. Anthropologists study all aspects of human life, in every region of the world, throughout all time. They might focus on everything from present-day cultures and human behavior, traditions, and prehistoric cultures to the biology and evolution of humans, or the origin and evolution of language.
Key Requirements Analytical, meticulous, self-motivated, and sensitive to other cultures with excellent communication skills, good physical condition, and the ability to persevere.
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus; if available, computer science, statistics, physiology, foreign languages
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
  • Watch this video to meet a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Diane France, who uses bones to help identify people who have died, and the circumstances surrounding their death.
  • In this article, you'll meet paleoanthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the world-famous, 3.2 million-year-old skeleton known as "Lucy" while he was listening to a song by the Beatles.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

A doctoral degree in anthropology is needed for most positions in this field. Individuals with a bachelor's or master's degree sometimes qualify for research or administrative positions in government or private firms.

Education and Training

If you want to be an anthropologist, you should major in anthropology in college. As early as possible, you should begin training in the use of statistics, in one or more foreign languages, and in a field related to the area of anthropology that especially interests you. For example, if you want to go into archaeology, you will need knowledge of geology and geography. For physical anthropology, you should be trained in genetics and human anatomy. It usually takes at least eight years of full-time study beyond high school to get a doctoral degree in anthropology. Part of this time is often spent doing fieldwork. In addition, anthropologists are expected to continue reading and studying throughout their careers so that they can keep up with new findings in the field.

Other Qualifications

All anthropologists must be able to communicate their ideas to other people, whether these people are visitors to a museum, other scholars, or a management group in business or industry. They must be careful workers who have the patience to sift through bushels of earth looking for fossils and artifacts or to sort information looking for details about one area of human culture. Although much of their work is done independently, anthropologists should be able to work as part of a research team when necessary. They need to be adaptable people who can get along with people from cultures that are very different from their own.

Nature of the Work

Anthropologists are social scientists who study the origin and physical, cultural, and social development of human beings. Anthropologists study the language, traditions, beliefs, possessions, and values of people in various parts of the world and formulate hypotheses to explain their research and findings. They generally specialize in physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, or cultural anthropology.

Watch this video to meet 4.4 million year old "Ardi", one of the most important fossils ever found. Ardi tells us that our last common ancestor was not like a chimpanzee, overturning old ideas.

Physical anthropologists attempt to understand the physical or biological development of the human species. Some study fossils to trace the evolution of human beings. Physical anthropologists also study how humans have been influenced by their heredity and environment. They are interested in the geographical distribution of human physical characteristics. They study measurements, blood types, and other information about large groups of people. Physical anthropologists need to have some knowledge of genetics, human anatomy, evolution, and other fields of biology. In fact, many physical anthropologists work in medical schools or in biology departments in colleges or universities.

Some anthropologists are archaeologists. They examine physical objects, such as tools, clothing, homes, and art left from past human cultures. They use these objects to determine the history, customs, and living habits of earlier civilizations. Most often, archaeologists dig up objects that have become buried in the ground over the years. Archaeologists have made important contributions to the field of anthropology concerning the cultures of Native Americans, European cave dwellers, and early American settlers.

Anthropologists who are known as linguistic anthropologists study the evolution of languages and their relation to one another. They sometimes visit communities with no written languages and study and record the spoken languages. Linguistic anthropologists also try to explain how the language is related to the ways in which the people in the community think and act.

Cultural anthropologists, who study the customs and cultures of living peoples, form the largest group of anthropologists. They study populations such as native tribes of Africa or America, people on remote islands of the Pacific, or segments of the populations of modern cities. Cultural anthropologists interview persons in the populations they study and observe their behavior. They often concentrate on one area of life, such as their religious beliefs, their music, or how they care for the aged. They keep careful records and try to draw conclusions about their ways of life.

Most anthropologists work in colleges and universities, where they teach and do research. Others work for museums. Government agencies employ a few anthropologists, usually in museums, national parks, and technical aid programs. Anthropologists also work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army Corps of Engineers. Some anthropologists serve as consultants to government or industry. For example, they may write reports estimating the impact that the construction of a new dam would have on the people living in a valley upstream from the dam. They may prepare an estimate of the value of the archaeological sites that would be flooded by the resulting reservoir.

Work Environment

Anthropologists who are employed by colleges and universities usually spend much of their time in offices, classrooms, and libraries. Their working hours are flexible but often total more than 40 hours a week. Most anthropologists also do some field work. This work may take them to study sites as diverse as the Arctic to study the Inuit or Eskimos, to Africa to dig at an archaeological site or observe monkeys in their natural habitat, or into a modern city to record the behavior and attitudes of members of a particular ethnic group. Anthropologists engaged in field work require good physical stamina. Most anthropologists find that the challenge of making new discoveries more than compensates for any lack of physical comfort on field trips. Anthropologists who work for museums or for businesses or government agencies face a wide variety of working conditions.

On the Job

  • Collect information and make judgments through observation, interviews, and the review of documents.
  • Plan and direct research to characterize and compare the economic, demographic, health care, social, political, linguistic, and religious institutions of distinct cultural groups, communities, and organizations.
  • Write about and present research findings for a variety of specialized and general audiences.
  • Advise government agencies, private organizations, and communities regarding proposed programs, plans, and policies and their potential impacts on cultural institutions, organizations, and communities.
  • Build and use text-based database management systems to support the analysis of detailed firsthand observational records or field notes.
  • Identify culturally specific beliefs and practices affecting health status and access to services for distinct populations and communities, in collaboration with medical and public health officials.
  • Develop intervention procedures, using techniques such as individual and focus group interviews, consultations, and participant observation of social interaction.
  • Construct and test data collection methods.
  • Explain the origins and physical, social, or cultural development of humans, including physical attributes, cultural traditions, beliefs, languages, resource management practices, and settlement patterns.
  • Conduct participatory action research in communities and organizations to assess how work is done and to design work systems, technologies, and environments.
  • Formulate general rules that describe and predict the development and behavior of cultures and social institutions.
  • Train others in the application of ethnographic research methods to solve problems in organizational effectiveness, communications, technology development, policy making, and program planning.
  • Create data records for use in describing and analyzing social patterns and processes, using photography, videography, and audio recordings.
  • Collaborate with economic development planners to decide on the implementation of proposed development policies, plans, and programs based on culturally institutionalized barriers and facilitating circumstances.
  • Enhance the cultural sensitivity of elementary and secondary curricula and classroom interactions in collaboration with educators and teachers.
  • Study archival collections of primary historical sources to help explain the origins and development of cultural patterns.
  • Apply systematic sampling techniques to ensure the accuracy, completeness, precision, and representativeness of individuals selected for sample surveys.
  • Identify key individual cultural collaborators, using reputational and positional selection techniques.
  • Gather and analyze artifacts and skeletal remains to increase knowledge of ancient cultures.
  • Organize public exhibits and displays to promote public awareness of diverse and distinctive cultural traditions.
  • Apply traditional ecological knowledge and assessments of culturally distinctive land and resource management institutions to assist in the resolution of conflicts over habitat protection and resource enhancement.
  • Examine museum collections of hominid fossils to classify anatomical and physiological variations and to determine how they fit into evolutionary theory.
  • Participate in forensic activities, such as tooth and bone structure identification, in conjunction with police departments and pathologists.
  • Observe the production, distribution, and consumption of food to identify and mitigate threats to food security.
  • Analyze and characterize user experiences and institutional settings to assist consumer product developers, technology developers, and software engineers with the design of innovative products and services.
  • Build geographic information systems (GIS) to record, analyze, and cartographically represent the distribution of languages, cultural and natural resources, land use, and settlement patterns of specific populations.
  • Observe and measure bodily variations and physical attributes of different human groups.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Anthropologists

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