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An idiosyncratic biography of bone probes the secrets and sensitive spots of the human skeletal system

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone

Brian Switek
Riverhead Books
2019
288 pp.
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The hard tissues of the human body have lately enjoyed a moment in the sun with the appearance of important treatments of teeth by Peter Ungar and Tanya Smith (1, 2). Joining the ranks is Brian Switek’s Skeleton Keys, which is devoted to the bones that compose the human skeleton and explaining how they can tell us about everything from human evolution to human prejudice.

But there is a major difference between Switek and his predecessors: Ungar and Smith are both active researchers, and their books dive into the paleontological, functional, and developmental nitty-gritty of their subjects. Switek, on the other hand, is a science writer: an observer who passes by the more abstruse aspects of osteology, focusing instead on what human bones—and particularly, what we have historically made of them—can tell us about ourselves. He readily admits as much and comes close to making it a moral issue, writing that “as we get closer to the bone, there may be some parts of ourselves that we don’t wish to see.”

This unapologetic declaration may come as a minor surprise considering that Switek, an avocational dinosaur palaeontologist, might have brought a fairly detached lens to examining the bones of what is, at least in skeletal terms, just another vertebrate. But in Skeleton Keys, the more personal and idiosyncratic the better.

Switek comes across as rather morbidly mesmerized by the bony armature that lies within us. His account of the human skeleton, and of how scientists have tried to understand and interpret it, is accordingly replete with anecdote and reflection and unfolds as what, in the long-lost days before blogs, one would have described as a series of essays. The book’s chapter titles—such as “Bones to Pick,” “Bone Shaking,” “Sticks and Stones,” and “Skeletons in the Closet”—suggest an easy tone, a promise on which the author delivers throughout.

As the anecdotes tumble forth, Switek painlessly conveys a remarkable range of information about the structure and function of the human skeleton and about the evolutionary contexts (vertebrate, primate, and hominid) from which it emerged. We learn about the responses of bone to stress, for example, discovering that even dinosaurs suffered from arthritis and how people in southern France produced artificial cranial deformation via the binding of their babies’ heads as late as the early 20th century.

Readers also get a lot of musing about the rather uneasy relationship that living humans typically have with the remains of their dead, along with many prehistoric and historic instances of how people have dealt with the resulting ambiguous feelings. Switek dwells briefly on saintly relics, for example, before mentioning that worldwide, the ritual use of human braincases as drinking cups has “never really gone out of style.”

Most of these examples flash by, but in three chapters, Switek goes deeper. In “Bad to the Bone,” he relates the saga of England’s King Richard III, who died during the 15th-century Battle of Bosworth and was reburied at Leicester in 2015, his improbably discovered body having been identified by DNA markers as well as its pathologies. In “Bones of Contention,” he recounts the controversy surrounding the 19th-century cranial studies conducted by the physician Samuel Morton. These allegedly showed “Caucasians” to have larger brains than “Ethiopians,” an erroneous conclusion that was subsequently hijacked to justify slavery.

And under the rubric of “who are the rightful keepers of the dead?” Switek delves at comparative length into the complicated affair of “Kennewick Man,” a recently reburied 9000-year-old Native American skeleton from Washington State. He uses this well-publicized case as a springboard to consider the online market for trafficking human remains, making for a rather awkward transition to some concluding reflections on how difficult it is to become a fossil.

If all this makes Skeleton Keys sound like a bit of a miscellany, well, that’s probably fair. And if what you require is a tightly organized and detailed account of the morphology, evolution, and pathologies of the human skeleton, you would be better off consulting Jeffrey Schwartz’s 2006 volume of the same title (3). But if you want an easy read that compellingly evokes the sheer wonder and complexity of the supporting framework inside you—and the murky human responses it arouses—you need look no farther.

References

  1. 1. P. Ungar, Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins (Princeton Univ. Press, 2017).

  2. 2. T. M. Smith, The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, and Behavior (MIT Press, 2018).

  3. 3. J. Schwartz, Skeleton Keys: An Introduction to Human Skeletal Morphology, Development, and Analysis (Oxford Univ. Press, ed. 2, 2006).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY 10024, USA.