Introduction to Physical Anthropology

by Arnie Schoenberg
version: 30/IX/20


The high cost of textbooks prevents many students from succeeding. Textbook prices have gone up 3 times the rate of inflation in the past 30 years. New textbook editions are a scam. Textbooks have become a way to shift the cost of teacher salaries onto the student. The change in Jurmain's Introduction to Biological Anthropology from 2009 to 2011 was to search and replace the word “hominid” for the word “hominin”, and raise the price 20%. Many students will not buy their textbooks (Kingkade 2013), and struggle through class, reading at the library. Other students will order cheap copies online but get the wrong edition, or discounted shipping where it arrives halfway through the semester. Textbooks have become a barrier to student success.

Assigning free online textbooks is one solution. Much of the high cost of textbooks comes from color printing, but black-and-white and text-heavy books are poor options for our predominantly visual learners. Online textbooks allow for unlimited, large, color graphics. For the price of a new textbook, a student can buy a text reader (kindle, ipad, tablet, surface, etc.) or a used laptop. There may still be problems with students' access to high speed internet. The monthly fee for a cable modem service is expensive, but free WiFi is becoming more and more widely available. The new downtown San Diego library is a good example.

Unfortunately, in 2011 when I started this, there were no free online textbook available for Introduction to Physical Anthropology. Probably the closest were Dennis O'Neil's Biological Anthropology Tutorials from Palomar College, Wikipedia's Biological Anthropology and Introduction to Paleoanthropology textbooks, and Augustín Fuentes primatology class notes (no longer available), and I borrowed from these, especially O'Neil. I found most of these sources written in the style of an encyclopedia, and tried to make the textbook more approachable by including my own voice whenever possible.

Some students may lack the necessary computer skills to use an online textbook. Hopefully, the recent increases in funding for basic skills will help. Gone are the good old days whence we scribed our homework on tablets of wet clay. Students must learn computer skills to survive academically and professionally, and the printed textbook is becoming a relic of a bygone age. Information Communication and Technology Literacy is a component of most institutional goals. The more students practice current electronic research techniques, the better prepared they will be for the rest of their academic and professional life.

I previously encouraged students to use their textbook as the main source for my take-home tests, but I found that many students start with the internet as their first source of answers, and then fall-back on the textbook if the info doesn't show up immediately in a search engine. I've come to realize that this is not always bad, as they often discover more current information than the textbook. For rapidly changing issues, such as how many genes are in the human genome, how closely we are related to Neandertals, Homo naledi, or the Cerruti Mastadon eaters, the information available on sites such as Wikipedia is often more accurate than the typical textbook written three to ten years ago.

For each major section I have tried to follow a typical textbook chapter format:

Introduction: an introduction and short summary of the section.

Focus questions: intended to help students consolidate the disparate sources.

Information: the bulk of the course content, my ideas and links to other sources.

Vocabulary: key terms, useful for students to check their own knowledge

Imagination questions: critical thinking and discussion questions

The sources are linked directly and [most] included in the Bibliography. A glossary and index seemed superfluous, because of CTR-F on most browsers, online dictionaries, and search engines.

I've tried to keep the proportion of material consistent with most introduction to biological anthropology textbooks.

Weeks and Sections

1-2       Introduction

3-4       Evolutionary Biology

5          Cellular Biology

6-7       Primatology

8-10     Paleoanthropology

11-13   Human Variation

14        Conclusion: the Future

One difference in the ordering is that I'm attempting a more chronological approach to human taxonomy than most other textbooks. I introduce human evolution in the order of speciation: from DNA, vertebrates, mammals, primates, hominids, to anatomically modern Homo sapiens. I introduce paleontology as the method to understanding primate evolution, and in turn, living primates.

Much of this textbook is just a bunch of links to other articles; almost like a reader. If I found a source that said it better than I could, I just copied the link. I have chosen only articles that are freely available, with no login required. I've tried to include a mix of both the most basic and well-written introduction to the subject, and examples of the most primary and current sources available online. The textbook mixes internet memes, peer review journal articles, encyclopedic entries, video clips, gifs, radio podcasts, games, music playlists, and VR. There is some justification for a multimodal approach to teaching anthropology (Chin 2017), but there are also drawbacks.

One disadvantage of this reader format is that sometimes students may get bombarded by obscure details. Michelle Field and Tori Saneda describe a similar critique in the introduction to their Wikipedia Biological Anthropology textbook, where they argue for presenting a brief outline of the information online and using class time to fill in the details:

As you peruse the reading material in the course module pages you might find that they contain less detail than what you would see in a "normal" textbook. This is intentional. One thing we find incredible about higher education is that the student often reads the textbook only to go into class and have the professor lecture for two hours on the exact same material. Because of this repetition of the material, students often become exasperated and either stop reading the material or stop paying attention in class. We've also found that students in the introductory anthropology courses frequently struggle with picking out the basic concepts from among the myriad of material from the textbook. We think that students in introductory anthropology courses such as this one, most of whom are not going to be anthropology majors, should read the basic information outside of class. This allows the instructor to focus on providing more explanatory details and help students work through critical thinking about the material in class. Therefore, the readings in the course modules have the basic information. Through in-class activities, discussions, and homework assignments, the job of the instructor is to help students move deeper into and synthesize the material. [Field 2011]

I have tried to address these problems with a short outline to the subjects in my own words, but my textbook emphasizes links to original sources in order to maximize the depth of critical thinking outside of class, and I hope to review the basic concepts during class. Also, repetition is not a waste of time for an introductory class. I believe the risk of losing a few blurry-eyed students to the frustration of obscure websites, is worth the benefits of pushing students to work directly with more primary sources and often the most current research available.

This project is ongoing: links go out of date, better articles become available, permissions are granted, and peer-review is an ongoing process. The quality of a big name textbook is admittedly superior, but I believe that in the context of our community college, overall student success will improve with the mediocre -- but free -- textbook that follows.


“Can't beat the price!” – Jo Student


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problems (mistakes, bad links, etc.)