In the 1950s and early 1960s, the few faculty members in anthropology at the University of Iowa were part of the Department of Sociology. June Helm, who was at the University from 1960 until her death in 2004, was instrumental in establishing anthropology as a separate department at Iowa. In 1963 a joint Department of Anthropology and Sociology was formed; in 1969 the two departments separated and the first chair of anthropology was appointed. The department from the beginning included socio-cultural anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguistic anthropologists; in 1986 the first biological anthropologist was hired. The department reached its present size in the early 1990s.

Faculty members over the years have served as presidents of the American Anthropological Association, the Society of Economic Anthropology, and the Society for Cultural Anthropology, and as editors of Medical Anthropology Quarterly and the American Ethnologist. The department’s current strengths include medical anthropology, feminist anthropology, economic anthropology, paleoanthropology, and European archaeology.

The Department of Anthropology maintains close ties with the Office of the State Archaeologist, the Museum of Natural History, International Programs, and the College of Public Health.