Bones are an odd piece of equipment really. They are very much with us while we’re alive, but they do tend to stick around for a long time after we’ve gone, leaving skeletal trails all over the place, sometimes in very inconvenient spots, such as the discovery of Cro-magnon man down some poor chap’s well in France. That caused an upheaval – turned out to be 32,000 years old, but the bones were in good nick. And of course, a fair number have been found in cupboards.

But skeletons have proved themselves very useful in teaching us lessons about our ancestors, bone diseases, genetics, and have played a vital role in forensic anthropology, science and police work. Bones hold information. They tell stories. And to follow those stories takes us through a fascinating trail of life and death, history, time, and resilience.

The Ancestral Trail

It’s sobering to think about our bones…not as the result of eons of artistic whittling, but as a process of selection to find the useful bits: fingers became dexterous, limbs longer, heads more erect, wrists flexible, hips articulated, etc. What you’re experiencing when you walk across the room, bend down, or sit down is the result of 500 million years of evolutionary history. So when you break one, it’s quite fair to expect some screaming and a lot of fuss. We should all protect our bones with the same care we would give to the preservation of ancient Egyptian vases, because what we have sheathed within us is just as ancient and artfully shaped.

We carry the past in our bones (and that goes for last night’s G&T). They reckon that, as a mammalian species, we probably have another million years to go. Although what may  ultimately happen remains a mystery. Our bones are changing – even in the last few hundred years we’ve grown taller. Will our heads get bigger? Scrub that question; we’re already having trouble in that department. It’s strange to think that eventually our bones – this personal signage of life and death we carry around – might actually become fossils. Although, when younger generations flick their fingers across a range of cell phone buttons under our confused noses, one might be forgiven for suspecting that fossilisation has already taken place.

Getting to know our bones has been a long journey through the past, modern science and a process of detection. Often the age of ancient human bones has been disputed, particularly when found in the company of mammoths. It was an eccentric British clergyman, William Buckland, who founded the study of how fossils are made. In 1821 quarry workers at Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire found the preserved bones of a variety of animals buried in the base of the quarry, including mammoth and hyena.

Buckland, determining this an ancient lair of hyenas through the evidence of crushed bones and hyena poop (also fossilized, it would seem), had his theory proven by comparing the old poop with fresh samples of modern hyenas. And his findings shook the world. Prehistory shifted in place and time through the study of these osteological remains and some messy hyenas which, according to the scientists of the time, should not have been living where they were found. Buckland won the Copley Medal for his work. Bones lead back like a fine thread to all stages of life.

Catching the Killer

We all love the crime thriller where the forensic anthropologist in suitably impressive form appears white-coated, rubber-gloved, and blinking in the subterranean light of the morgue, to inform the detective the age, gender and ancestry of the deceased person, and generally the method of death. Everything that is possibly useful except the identity of the killer.

But looking at ancient bones is equally exciting. Sometimes bones are found in graves, sometimes more than one skeleton. Often they are found deep in the sediment of the floors of caves. Trauma to the bones very often reveals the way the person has died – such as blunt force to the skull or bones cut through purposely with a knife. They can even tell the type of weapon used – whether wood or metal, or with regards to a knife whether smooth-edged or serrated, and whether the damage to the bone occurred before or after death, and whether the injury is deliberate or an old injury. Before death usually reflects in what is called ‘green bone’ effect, while damages after death are very often caused by earth movement, insects and scavengers.

The analysis of human bone is fundamental to establishing the scientific facts of death, enabling police and the courts to correctly analyse the circumstances of crime. The knowledge of human osteology helps to identify victims, reconstruct what happened to that person, and eliminate evidence that relates only to what happened after death, such as natural events. Even considering important evidence such as fingerprints, fibres, DNA – and allowing for decomposition and missing body parts – skeletal analysis is vital in determining the nature of death. This type of bone investigation is often at the forefront of ensuring justice for the victim.

Our bones are always who we are, and a record of what has happened to us. They are the perfect print of our being; a sturdy signature of the past and a trusty word on the future whatever that be, and however it might unfold.

Love your bones. They come from a long line of trial and error, calculation and brilliant connection. They are your ancestral emblem that makes you uniquely who you are.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

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