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When Worlds Collide: Physical Anthropology in Science Fiction and Fantasy

March 7, 2017


A pair of silvery eyes flick across a dusky horizon. It's not night. It's midday on this particular people's homeworld. To them, the world is bright, colorful. To their human visitors, night vision goggles are recommended, according to the official visitor's guide.


Physical anthropology is useful in building worlds and sometimes making up those strange but amazing features of the other beings our characters interact with. In a previous article, I mentioned that physical anthropology studies evolution, the physical characteristics of one species versus another. One part biology and another part an analysis on how it might affect a culture or species' development and growth, Physical anthropology is a bit of a beast to tackle since it encompasses a lot of things. Don't worry, we'll work through it.


In Development of a Species' Characteristics


So you might have an idea for a world that your hero or heroine (or both!) enter. Maybe it's a world that's almost all covered in water, say Atlantis or something like that. Perhaps the place has floating mountains above a swamp.


Physical anthropology (and evolution) helps us develop an idea of what kinds of species we might encounter for such a world. For example, what features would evolution select for if a world is covered in water? Obviously, aquatic features or the ability to make the most of whatever small landmass exists. In our floating mountains? Flight would be an incredible advantage for the upper parts of the world but in the lower, I would expect species that can camouflage within the swampy forests from perhaps the swooping fliers who might prey on them as a food source.


By imagining what the world might look like, I can come up with sentient and non-sentient species' physical characteristics.


The Environmental Factor


Obviously, on earth, we have humans who live in some very diverse territories. People in Siberia haven't grown thick coats of fur. People from island nations don't have webbed feet or hands. That being said, I caution about making your species too specialized in their evolution to their environment. Sometimes the environment isn't the only factor in the success of a species. Some species will work to transform their environment to work for them.


That being said, if you have a species of centaurs living in the swampy floating mountain world, maybe they can't fly but perhaps they've found new ways to adapt. Maybe they've built bridges from tree to tree, hot air balloons to reach the mountains. This technology used to adapt will also affect their culture (going back to cultural anthropology since the different kinds of anthropology are linked). Perhaps it's a right of passage to battle the bog dragon who can maneuver through the mud of the lower levels? The mountains can be a place only for religious rituals, it's difficulty to reach a test of faith and strength.


Maybe the environment isn't perfect but it's home and life finds a way. However, there is likely a reason that race evolved the way they did. Were the boggy forests once vast steppe conducive to a horse-person's evolution before a great flood from which the world never recovered?


In Development of the Environment


I'm sure you've guessed by now but you can go the other way. Maybe you have a cool idea for a race but need to imagine their home after the fact? What kind of environment might cause a people to develop with elf ears? Even if that environmental condition no longer exists, it might give some interesting back story as to the history of your people's origins.


By extension, those ancient ideas might have carried on through culture. Maybe those centaurs we keep talking about still have phrases that have to do with living in a wide open field. They don't think about it when they use them. Maybe they don't know where they came from or what they really mean. But it's such a part of their culture, they've never let it go.


The Science of a Body


Move over, Bones. This part is going to help people who aren't looking for world building necessarily but might find themselves in need of physical anthropology in a crime scene or science parts. Physical anthropologists are consulted by police officers sometimes. They are great at looking at skeletal pieces and putting together a story.


You see, bones can tell you a lot about a person. However, even then the information can be limited. You can't look at a skeleton and say, “This was a 28 year old woman who had children.” You can guess an age range and while there are some decent ways to guess that it's a woman who had children, it's not 100%. Sometimes having children leaves marks on the pelvis. Sometimes not. Most of the time, you can guess by the shape of the pelvis that it's a woman. But there are exceptions.


Bones tell other stories. Material analysis can give us an idea of where a person might have grown up. How? The water that they drank can leave mineral deposits during the development of a person's bones. You can see where a person had arthritis which can lead to guesses about occupations. Certain kinds of injuries leave certain kinds of marks on the bones and physical anthropologists can tell you if they survived that injury or not. Also, some diseases leave marks on a person's bones, too. Also, the hyoid bone in the throat tells us if a being has the ability to speak in the same way and give clues to the kind of speech a person can use. (Is that alien able to even produce a human speech sound?)


In conclusion, physical anthropology can help you imagine both the people who might live in an environment or an environment a people might have evolved within. But life is complicated. It finds a way in the strangest of places and sometimes will change the environment to suit them. These changes can affect a being right down to their bones, literally!

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