I usually receive one of three reactions from people when I tell them I study anthropology. The first is confusion, because depending on their experiences some people have not heard of anthropology or are unaware that the study of humans, their skeletons, genetics, culture, material remains, language etc. is called anthropology. The second group of people have heard of anthropology and are either neutral or excited about the discipline. The third group of people are those that get the most excited. “Oh!”, they exclaim, “What’s the latest dinosaur you’ve found!!!” This is the group of people that is the most disappointed when they learn I cannot in fact tell them about the latest in Jurassic predators and the one I get to educate about the difference between paleontology and anthropology.
At this point it’s a standing joke in my field, the mix up between paleontology and anthropology. It is true that some branches of anthropology, specifically prehistoric archaeology and paleoanthropology (human evolution), devote their study to a timescale farther back than most of us consider. We became anatomically modern as Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, and our ancestors and the chimp lineage diverged about 5-7 million years ago, but the velociraptor stalked its prey about 75 million years ago. So as an anthropologist, I grapple with a much shorter time frame than a paleontologist. Where then does the confusion originate? Sure both disciplines study remains of the past but I blame Ross Geller. Yes, you heard me – Dr. Ross Geller, from the television show Friends. He was a paleontologist, but in many episodes he makes references/science jokes about subjects that actually fall under the umbrella of anthropology. There are in fact numerous articles detailing the questionable knowledge of Professor Geller as a paleontologist. In this article I am going to dissect some of Ross’s scientific references on the show for their place within academia (paleontology vs anthropology) as well as their accuracy.