The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)


Session 15. What Is a Population? Troubling Foundational Concepts and Categorization in Biological Anthropology. Invited Podium Symposium. Chair: Adam P. Van Arsdale Co-organizers: Robin Nelson, Santa Clara University

April 16, 2020 2:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m., Diamond 4 Add to calendar

In 1951, Sherwood Washburn proposed a new physical anthropology. Central to Washburn’s vision, and borrowed from the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology, was a re-centering of the focus of research on the population. The population was the unit through which evolutionary processes can and should be understood, avoiding the pitfalls of atheoretical taxonomization. Nearly 70 years removed, the population remains the focal unit of biological anthropology, and yet, in practice, it is not clear this category has either consistency or clarity. In 2003, Caspari pointed out that although the language of biological anthropology has changed substantially over the past century, from “types to populations,” the underlying logic--populations as discrete branches of a tree-like structure--remains quite similar. At its root, this inertia in the discipline reflects an unfinished theoritization of populations as a unit of study, particularly given the diverse scales (temporal and geographic) and kinds of evidence (fossil, skeletal, archaeological, medical, anthropometric, biometric, genetic) employed in biological anthropology research.

This panel aims to bring together researchers from across the spectrum of biological anthropology in a focused conversation on several related questions central to the discipline. What is a population? What connections can be drawn between the ways in which populations are constructed across the discipline? What are the implications for how anthropologists communicate about populations, both with each other and with diverse publics? These questions have taken on an even greater importance given advancing knowledge within the field (e.g. aDNA, primate hybridity), as well as an increasing awareness and availability of “population” data to the public (e.g. DTC genetics, ancestry). The challenges faced by anthropology around this topic also present an opportunity for biological anthropology to lead the way in developing new frameworks for constructing populations that are of relevance for the broader fields of evolutionary biology.

2:30PM Add to calendar Demes in Disarray: Reconciling Evidence, Observation, and Population Structure in the Pleistocene. Adam P. Van Arsdale, Michelle M. Glantz.
2:45PM Add to calendar Spatial Demography, Population Size, and Genetic Drift: A Model-Based Approach. Andrew A. White.
3:00PM Add to calendar The fuzzy nature of paleopopulations defies typology. Sheela G. Athreya, Rebecca R. Ackermann.
3:15PM Add to calendar Balancing the Scales of Bioarchaeology: Meaningful Studies of Health and Function in Past Populations, Communities and Individuals. Sabrina C. Agarwal.
3:30PM Discussant: Rachel Caspari
3:45PM Add to calendar From Kin to Kind: Becoming Molecular in the Time of American Settler Colonialism. Rick W. A. Smith.
4:00PM Add to calendar Navigating identity politics in genomics research:  a case study of Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico. Jada Benn Torres.
4:15PM Add to calendar Population, Race, or Racism?: slippery usage of the population concept in studies of health inequities in minoritized communities. Robin G. Nelson.
4:30PM Add to calendar What a population is, and is not, matters: ancestry, evolution and racist science. Deborah A. Bolnick, Agustín Fuentes.
4:45PM Add to calendar The misuse of “hunter-gatherers” as a discreet unit in population studies. Alyssa N. Crittenden, Trevor R. Pollom.
5:00PM Add to calendar When populations are porous: admixture dynamics in a wild baboon hybrid zone. Jenny Tung, Tauras P. Vilgalys, Arielle S. Fogel, Susan C. Alberts.
5:15PM Add to calendar Primate populations/communities, the role of humans in shaping them, and why it matters. Erin P. Riley.
5:30PM Add to calendar Variation in adolescent male chimpanzee reproductive tactics: implications for understanding what is a “population” of chimpanzees. Rachna B. Reddy.
5:45PM Discussant: William Leonard