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Combining two scientific branches, paleoanthropology encompasses both the study of anthropology and the discipline of paleontology. This branch of science specifically studies human paleontology, discovering the origins and development of the earliest humans. It focuses on human evolution, working to explain how humans and people groups developed and progressed over time. Becoming a paleoanthropologist requires a strong background in the physical sciences, including an advanced college degree and first-hand experience in anthropology, paleontology or paleoanthropology.
What Is Paleoanthropology?
Mixing the disciplines of anthropology and paleontology, paleoanthropology strives to discover as much information as possible about the origins of early humans. The term paleoanthropology derives from the term anthropology, the study of human culture, origins and biology. It uses many anthropological elements such as comparing human species groups and studying the differences between human species and other species. The discipline also brings in elements of paleontology, studying human fossils and artifacts, rather than dinosaurs, animals or other species.
What Does a Paleoanthropologist Do?
With a keen sense of curiosity, a paleoanthropologist wants to figure out why modern-day humans behave the way they do by studying early humans. They also compare physical traits from early humans to humans now, figuring out how and why traits and behaviors have changed over the years. Evolution plays a huge role in a paleoanthropologist’s job, offering a blueprint to follow when studying the human species. They examine the ways that evolution has shaped, changed and determined the human species as it is today.
Like their fellow physical scientists, a paleoanthropologist studies human fossils, using techniques found in physical anthropology like ethnography and forensics. Using the theories of evolution and dating by geologic strata and radioactive-decay rates, they try to determine how old the fossils are and how they differ from other human fossils. By studying the fossils, they can determine how early humans moved around and performed different actions. Scientists also search for, excavate and preserve human artifacts such as bone and stone tools. The paleoanthropologist uses these tools to figure out how early humans used them and why they were important to certain early humans.
How Do You Become a Paleoanthropologist?
Because a paleoanthropologist uses numerous other physical sciences, they should have a strong background in science classes starting in high school. They should take classes in biology, geology, chemistry and physics, as well as have a strong understanding of mathematics. Once further in their studies, a paleoanthropologist will also take more specific courses such as geoarchaeology, evolutionary biology and chemical analysis of early human paleoenvironments.
Most employers want at least a master’s degree, so the best place to start is with a bachelor’s degree. Few undergraduate programs in paleoanthropology exist, so many start with a bachelor’s degree in a similar field such as biological anthropology, genetics and geology.
At the master’s degree level, not many schools have specific degrees in paleoanthropology. So, most aspiring paleoanthropologists opt for a master’s degree in anthropology or planetology and choose a specialization in an area similar to paleoanthropology. Popular specializations include human skeletal biology, forensic and nutritional anthropology and Maya studies and Caribbean culture. Many degrees take about two years to complete and include field work. The University of Iowa offers a paleoanthropology concentration at the graduate level, while Harvard University has a paleoanthropology lab for graduate students. At New York University, the human origin graduate program is found at the Center for the Study of Human Origins in the Department of Anthropology. All these programs offer advanced studies in paleoanthropology to prepare scientists for the workforce or the next level of studies.
Several graduate schools offer doctorate studies in paleoanthropology but most are extremely selective. If you choose to earn a doctorate degree, expect to spend at least 12 to 36 more months in school. Most doctorate degrees require many hours of fieldwork and completing a dissertation.
Working as a paleoanthropologist requires high levels of critical thinking and analytical skills. They must have solid problem-solving skills and be able to think outside the box to solve problems and analyze data. A paleoanthropologist often works on teams with other scientists and must be able to collaborate with others, as well as work independently. The job involves various written and verbal communication, in the form of research papers and presentations, and so highly-developed communication skills are a must as well.
Where Can You Get Paleoanthropology Experience?
Like every other job field, employers look for experience in that discipline. Because it is so specialized, it can be difficult to gain practical experience in paleoanthropology. Some options include volunteering or finding a part-time job at a natural history or similar museum or taking part in field studies. Your school’s anthropology or paleontology department can also offer helpful tips for finding internships and real-world experience. The National Museum of Natural History lists open internships on its website and you can also find information on field schools on its internship page.
Field schools for anthropologists are located all around the world and take place generally during the spring and summer months. Generally, colleges and universities sponsor the field schools, but the Paleoanthropology Society also runs its own field school in Ethiopia, the Middle Stone Age Research for Undergraduates. The Institute for Field Research also operates the Cova Gran Rockshelter Field School in Spain and the Vale Boi Field School in Portugal. Some popular options include the Drimolen Paleoanthropology and Geoarchaeology Field School in South Africa and the Turkana Basin Institute Origins Field School in Kenya.
How Much Does a Paleoanthropologist Make?
Because it is such a specialized niche, not a lot of data exists for a paleoanthropologist salary. As of May 2017, the median salary for an anthropologist and archeologist, under which a paleoanthropologist would fall, is $62,280 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means half of the workers in this field made more and half made less. Out of all workers in the archeology and anthropology fields, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,390, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $99,580.
Those working for the federal government have the highest salaries at an average of $76,960. The average paleontologist salary in the research field is about $55,000 a year. The job outlook for a paleoanthropologist is below average, with only a four percent growth projected from 2016 through 2026. This is less than the seven percent job growth across all industries. Lack of funding and interest in the field will lead to the decrease in job growth.
Where Do Paleoanthropologists Work?
The job duties of a paleoanthropologist can take them all over the world, from Africa to Europe to Asia. Depending on their exact role, they may spend most of their time out in the field studying fossils or they may conduct most of their research in a lab setting. Their work also includes lots of paperwork and research and grant writing, putting them at a desk and computer for some of the time.
Top employers for paleoanthropologists include research and development organizations, which account for 24 percent of jobs. Management, scientific and technical business employ 21 percent, while the federal government employs 19 percent. Other employers include cultural resource management firms, museum, historical sites and colleges and universities.
Working around the world often requires the paleoanthropologist to learn several languages. They spend long periods away from family and friends, often living and working in rough, remote and dangerous living conditions. They typically work full-time but may be required to work extra hours during large projects, including evenings, weekends and holidays.
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Human Origins: Introduction to Human Evolution
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Anthropologists and Archeologists
- Institute for Field Research: Spain Cova Gran
- Paleoanthropology Society: Students
- University of Iowa: Paleoanthropology Concentration
- Harvard University: Paleoanthropology Laboratory