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31 Days of Halloween

‘Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bones’ — book review

Where they came from, and what they mean to people.

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October, we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and sharing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media — books, comics, movies, and television — to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bones (2019) is the latest book from popular science journalist Brian Switek (now Riley Black), best known for her writings on paleontology, which include the books Written in Stone (2010) and My Beloved Brontosaurus (2014), as well as scores of online articles for sites like Scientific American and Smithsonian magazine. As explained in the book’s introduction, Skeleton Keys was conceived as a means for the author to explore a broader range of material than is usually covered in her standard writings dealing with dinosaurs, while still being anchored to the familiar subject of bones.

Truth be told, Skeleton Keys does succeed in covering a dizzying array of topics, but unfortunately the operative word here is dizzying. It should also be noted that this is not a book for the squeamish or those turned off by graphic descriptions of death and violence, as Keys‘ opening account of a botched suicide attempt makes clear.

Given Black’s background, it shouldn’t be surprising how much of Skeleton Keys deals with fossils and evolution. Readers familiar with Written in Stone may even feel a certain degree of déjà vu while thumbing through the first 100 pages, as these chapters are mostly about the evolutionary development of the human skeleton.

Beginning in the watery period of Earth’s history designated as the Cambrian, Chapter One is all about Pikaia gracilens, the first animal known to have evolved what can be called a proto-skeleton. Chapter Two then jumps to the Permian period and introduces readers to the earliest jawed fish, amphibians with hands, and proto-mammals like Dimetrodon, whose lower jaws developed into our modern mammalian ears. Chapter Four concerns one of the most celebrated fossils of all time, the Australopithecus afarensis known as Lucy, who may have been one of the first primates to walk upright.

Chapter Five deals with pathologies that effect bones, including the real-life body-horror story of Harry R. Eastlack Jr., whose rare disease, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, fused his bones together into a solid, immobile mass. Chapter Seven is all about the discovery of the “humpbacked” English monarch, King Richard III’s remains, which were thought lost until they were unearthed beneath a parking lot in 2012. Chapter Eight delves into the pseudoscientific world of phrenology, the idea that the shape and size of one’s skull can identify aspects of their character.

In reading Skeleton Keys, I often found myself reminded of Mary Roach’s 2003 best-seller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. But while Roach was able to see the (admittedly black) humor in what becomes of our remains – which she acknowledges comes from viewing cadavers as things and not people – Black is all about the humanizing of our bones.

This is embodied in the awkwardly situated third chapter of Skeleton Keys, which deals with the “La Brea Woman,” the only human remains to ever be pulled from the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California.  Black spills a great deal of ink on the gender politics of labeling these bones, because while we may know that the skeleton is “osteologically female,” we don’t know how this person would have self-identified, thus making it inappropriate to assume they would have seen themselves as a woman.

While I’m certainly sensitive to such issues, I can’t help but feel that by getting caught up in subjective labels, Black is ignoring other relevant subject matter, such as the fact — only alluded to — that the La Brea Woman is not currently displayed at the La Brea Museum because of the controversy surrounding her bones. Much like the English Cheddar Man discussed briefly in Chapter Eight, and the American Kennewick Man discussed in great depth in Chapter Nine, they’ve been alleged to be Caucasian by certain parties with racially motivated agendas.

The Kennewick Man, an 8,000 – 9,000-year-old skeleton discovered in 1996 in Washington State, elicited controversy when Native American tribes demanded that the bones be reburied in accordance with federal laws protecting their graves. The scientists studying the remains refused, claiming that Kennewick Man was too old to be affiliated with modern Native Americans. Black uses this controversy to talk about the shadowy, and often times not so shadowy, world of the human bone trade, and how “anthropology and archeology have a terrible legacy” of not only racist pseudoscience but of grave-robbing and even outright murder.

By now you might have guessed that the biggest fault in Skeleton Keys is that the book often feels poorly organized, with Chapter Six being the least focused of all, jumping from one topic to the next with little continuity. Black starts with a discussion of the beautifully macabre bone chapels of eastern Europe before rushing headlong into discussions about funerary practices among Neanderthals, mythological depictions of Death across various cultures, ancient skull cults, Catholic reliquary, cups made from skulls, a weird African skull-lyre found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and finally cannibalism.

Even Chapter One begins with a non sequitur, a discussion of controversial anthropologist Grover Krantz, who donated his bones to the Smithsonian when he died, but is best remembered for his long and open advocacy for the existence of Sasquatch. Krantz’s area of expertise was primate locomotion, so a discussion of his life and work would have made more sense in Chapter Four, which deals with the evolution of primate bipedalism, rather than one on Paleozoic proto-vertebrates.

Black is an experienced and entertaining writer and Skeleton Keys demonstrates that her desire to educate readers extends far beyond just dinosaurs. But while her latest book is a veritable cornucopia of scientific facts and figures quite literally spilling across the page, it would have benefited from a better editor, one who could have taken the information provided and used it to set a table from which the reader could have drawn a nutritious and enlightening meal, rather than feeling bloated from an all-you-can-eat buffet.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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