There is no shortage of books about the science of bones or about the history of very specific famous bones; but there are far fewer books that consider bones as biological and cultural objects in and of themselves. Brian Switek’s new book, Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone (Riverhead, 2019), takes this object-oriented approach, weaving together stories that bridge the disciplines of paleontology, anthropology, medicine, and forensics. In a freewheeling style, Switek addresses a series of topics that center on the ways that bones (human, dinosaur, what have you) intersect with our lives and cultures. The book includes accounts of Switek’s visits to natural history museums, participation in dinosaur digs, and a plethora of pop-culture asides about the curiosities and complexities of the human skeleton. “Bone, as it resides inside us, opened possibilities that would have otherwise gone unrealized,” Switek observes. “While they may not give daily thanks and praise, I’m certain paleontologists are grateful. Bones provide us with the most precious records we have of how life has changed through the ages.”
But bone isn’t just about us. The evolutionary history of bone reaches back much further in time than the scant few million years that hominins have walked bipedally and that Homo sapiens have spread around the globe. We share the same basic skeletal structure with other members of the vertebrate phyla and have for over 400 million years. For centuries, philosophers, scientists, and natural historians have looked to bones to help explain similarities between different groups of organisms as well as variation between members of a particular species. Because bone preserves so well over long periods of geologic time, it is one of the most omnipresent materials in the paleontological and archaeological records. Skin and muscle, for example, usually decompose, while an organism’s bones gradually turn to stone over millions of years. Consequently, what we know about the deep past is built in no small part out of the bones that scientists have found and the narratives they have spun around them.
This is particularly evident in the chapter “The Nearer the Bone, The Sweeter the Meat,” in which Switek shows that the things cultures do to bones after death are what give them their afterlives. Some bones, for example, are prized as religious relics; others are ground up for scientific isotope testing. Some bones have the marrow sucked out of them, while others become the fodder of Halloween comedy. Because of their physical durability and the wide range of their cultural representations, bones become, Switek argues, the way we mediate between life and death.
But the scientific interpretation of bones has never been an intellectually neutral endeavor. This is especially true with regard to human bones. Skeleton Keys walks readers through some particularly contentious examples, such as Kennewick Man, a Paleoamerican fossil whose discovery in 1996 prompted a legal clash over ownership rights between professional anthropologists and a Native American tribe. Perhaps the most important point of Skeleton Keys is its observation that bones raise questions not just of science but of ethics and law. Rather than mere museum relics, bones actively shape debates about cultural autonomy and identity. Our skeletons are the product of millions of years of evolution; how we think about those bones depends, in no small way, on our history and culture.
Our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, also had 206 bones in their bodies and just as many stories to offer about them as we do. Their bones, discovered along with other artifacts in a host of archaeological sites around the world, show that Neanderthals were a lot more like us than we might have assumed, but still uniquely adapted to the environmental rigors of their own evolutionary history.
For the past 150 years, Neanderthals have served as an evolutionary foil for Homo sapiens. We survived the Pleistocene, we’ve told ourselves, and Neanderthals did not because we were better adapted for the de-glaciation of Europe. We had better technologies. We had art, language, culture. In short, the story went, we were simply smarter. Yet, over the past decade, this particular narrative has been relegated to an evolutionary just-so story. (See, for example, Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s excellent essay, “The Neanderthal renaissance.”) Neanderthals, it turns out, did have a sophisticated culture, complex technologies, language, and social structures — we just had to be willing to see them in the archaeological record. “Neanderthals have suffered a long-running PR problem,” Switek notes in Skeleton Keys. But “[w]hat Neanderthals thought about death, and about bones, we can’t know. Given the diversity of our own interpretations, it would be wrong to project any one set of beliefs onto them, much less modern ones.”
In The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2019), archaeologist Clive Finlayson walks readers through the latest set of scientific discoveries about Neanderthals, including new evidence for their intellectual abilities as well as their interbreeding with modern humans. For the past decade, Finlayson has organized and carried out fieldwork in Gibraltar — at Gorham’s Cave, where discoveries have been integral in establishing the legitimacy of Neanderthal ritual and art. These discoveries have sparked scientific debates that have carried over into popular science journals.
Finlayson provides an excellent overview of the anthropological theory that was in vogue when he began his career. Since the late 1980s, he points out, the dominant theory of human origins pushed the idea of a “cognitive revolution” around 50,000 years ago, which led to the advent of modern Homo sapiens. Things like painting, art, and complex tools, so this theory held, were developed in short order during the European Pleistocene, long after Homo sapiens had evolved anatomically. This theory helped reinforce the idea that our species had — somewhere, somehow — outsmarted the Neanderthals, enabling our forebears to eke out an existence in the Pleistocene and then to flourish in the Anthropocene.
But this idea of a “revolution” has been widely dismissed within contemporary archaeology and paleoanthropology. Instead, scientists argue that the “suite” of modern behaviors — including art, symbolic thinking, and mortuary practice — was built up slowly during the Pleistocene and was not specific only to Homo sapiens. The evidence of this argument for gradual change has come from decades of continued archaeological excavations at sites that contain either early modern humans, Neanderthals, or both. This new body of research shows us that Neanderthals were doing a lot of sophisticated things we hadn’t previously given them credit for.
Research in Iberia has made significant contributions to reassessing the cultural savviness of Neanderthals, as has Finlayson’s own work at Gorham’s Cave. For example, evidence for Neanderthal bird-hunting displayed a sophistication of behavior archaeologists had long thought Neanderthals were incapable of. Not only did Neanderthals hunt birds, and hunt them well, they used the birds’ feathers for symbolic purposes. Few other sites have offered such insight into the biological and cultural relationships between Neanderthals and the animals in their environment. Finlayson’s research has contributed to a new understanding of how hominins evolved and created culture during the Pleistocene.
One of the most poignant chapters of The Smart Neanderthal is Finlayson’s description of how his team actively recast and re-narrated the lives of the Gibraltar Neanderthals, particularly through the Gibraltar Museum. For over a century and a half, two skulls, discovered in the mid-1800s, had been known in archaeological literature as Gibraltar 1 and Gibraltar 2; archaeologists have determined that the skulls belonged to an older woman and a young boy. Now, Gibraltar 1 and 2 have been rechristened “Nana” and “Flint,” imagined to be a grandmother and grandson, as part of Finlayson’s broader project to reframe Neanderthal lives. “We knew that the Neanderthals whose skulls had been found were probably not even contemporaries but it was a way of telling a story,” Finlayson explains in the book’s introduction.
The first thing that hits you when you see Nana and Flint is how human they look. […] When we opened the new Nana and Flint display in the Gibraltar Museum […], we had 1700 people coming to visit the new exhibit on the first day. Most were local people, out of a population of 30 000. That is the level of interest that Neanderthals generate.
The Smart Neanderthal offers both a fascinating exploration of the latest Neanderthal discoveries and a superb study of the evolution of Neanderthals as cultural icons.
Bones might offer an infinite number of stories, but we need authors like Switek and Finlayson to research and tell them. Their new books are highly recommended to readers interested in evolutionary theory, human prehistory, and the complex afterlives of bones.
Lydia Pyne is the author of Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Fossil Humans (Viking, 2016).