Welcome to Penn Anthropology

Anthropology became part of the Penn curriculum in 1886 when Daniel Brinton was appointed Professor of Archaeology and Linguistics in the University’s newly created graduate school. Brinton was an early proponent of anthropology’s four-field approach, bringing cultural, linguistic, biological, and archeological methods to bear on the study of human societies. The first PhD in anthropology was awarded in 1909 to the ethnologist Frank Speck, who became the chair of a formally constituted Department of Anthropology in 1913.

Anthropology has been called the natural history of humankind—from evolutionary beginnings down to the globalizing present. The field continues to value comprehensive training with a focus on particular branches of the discipline: the biosocial and evolutionary attributes of humans; the material record of historical peoples; the cultural, ethno-historical and linguistic organization of societies. The first of these branches investigates paleontological origins and biological continuities down to the present. The second reconstructs the past, from the earliest settled communities down to recent history, where it enriches the work of historians. The third has developed the comparative study of social processes and cultural traditions.

Penn Anthropology continues to pioneer innovations in anthropology and beyond. Our evolutionary anthropologists study population genetics and reproductive health, ancient hominids and modern primates, whether at laboratories on campus or at field sites in South America and the Middle East. Our archeological anthropologists study ancient Mesopotamia, the Maya, the Inca, colonial North America, and heritage culture around the world. Our sociocultural and linguistic anthropologists investigate contemporary media, politics, corporations, globalization, migration, race, and urban poverty. Faculty in all three sections contribute to programs in Culture Contact and Colonialism, Medical Anthropology and Global Health, and Native American Studies.

The methods of anthropology transcend the intellectual boundaries that have segregated the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and the professional schools. We engage both theory and practice. As we observe, record, analyze, and interpret people’s responses and understandings in particular situations, we develop comparative frameworks that move beyond the particulars of place, and examine issues that recur across many historical and geographical settings. Because the world—as well as our understanding of it—keeps changing, we continue to refine and expand our methods, and the theory that guides our research and curriculum.

Anthropology is the key to the contemporary curriculum. Our courses are cross-listed in a variety of other departments: disciplinary, such as English, History, Linguistics, Biology, Psychology, and Religious Studies; areal, such as East Asian Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies, Near East Studies, African Studies, Africana Studies, and South Asian Studies; and professional schools and centers, such as Education, Design, Law, Wharton, Annenberg, Medicine, Nursing, Social Policy and Practice, and Public Health. We have joint degree programs with several departments and schools. Our individual research topics engage a range of contemporary issues, including corporations and finance, media and communication, migration and demographics, science and technology, health and environment, heritage and identity, race and gender, violence and social control, poverty and rights, and political and economic development. This research informs the courses we teach.

Our curriculum is based on the proposition that in order to responsibly and constructively engage with contemporary human affairs, we must understand: 1) the historical trajectories that give rise to the different cultural and social forms of the modern world; 2) the logics of biological change, diversity and health; and, 3) the rubrics of social, economic, and political interaction that shape contemporary life worldwide. Our curriculum equips students with the intellectual skills they need to work in a globally inter-connected world. Whether students plan to pursue a career in business, or government, or medicine, or law, or any other profession, a background in anthropology equips them to pursue their goals.

Anthropology is the involved social science. It is scientifically rooted and actively engaged. It moves with the times. It makes a difference.