Picture the flag on a pirate ship. What do you see? A grinning skull and bones crossed in an ominous “X.” These bones are always gleaming white. But have you ever thought about how they got that way? Those pristine bones used to be wrapped in sheaths of muscle that moved them around, skin and hair that protected them. This episode tells the story of how a living, breathing organism turns into a pile of bones, and how those bones can tell us about the lives they led hundreds, or even thousands of years ago.
As biologists, we tend to think about how bones develop and grow in living organisms and how they carry us through our lives. We can look through a microscope and show you how bone cells divide, how cells produce the hard mineral and tough fibers that makes a femur, how individual cells die. But what happens to the body after the organism dies?
This episode tells the story of how a living, breathing organism turns into a pile of bones, and how those bones can tell us about the lives they led hundreds or even thousands of years ago. That old saying is wrong. In a way... dead men do tell tales. Bones have stories to tell.
But first, before we can get to the story of bones, we need to know more about decomposition, the process by which organic matter is broken down, or, more simply, the process of rotting. To get more information on this subject, we spoke with Myeashea Alexander, a trained anthropologist and rockstar blogger. She had a lot of colorful descriptions of what happens when our bodies decay. While it may be gross to us, decomposing flesh is a tasty buffet for lots of other animals.
In the lab, we take advantage of flesh-eating beetles to help clean bones that we study. The beetles are so meticulous in their feeding that they clean flesh from places that would be virtually inaccessible to dissection tools. The brain, the flesh between individual delicate ribs. It’s all gone. And we can retrieve even the teeny tiny bones of a rat paw from our beetle colony.
In the lab, we look at bones to understand their development, evolution, or disease. However, bones can actually tells us many things. Anthropologists (scientists that study humans) often want to know the age, sex, height, and/or ancestry of individuals or populations. By studying human remains in the field, anthropologists can develop biological profiles and life histories of individuals and societies.
To understand how this is done, we spoke to Christine Lee, an assistant professor at California State University Los Angeles and a bioarchaeologist who travels all over the world to piece together ancient lives and cultures, particularly in China and Mongolia. She told us how bones can inform us about the movement of populations and interactions between different groups.
While this episode is largely about bones and the stories they tell about the dead, it’s also about the lives of those people that study these bones. Working with the dead is not for everyone. It presents many challenges, from dealing with smelly, gross decomposing bodies, to traveling out in distant, far off lands with unfamiliar cultures. For Christine, working in the field involves sleeping in a tent, not being able to bathe for days, and if you do bathe, it’s in a cold river flooded by glaciers. Then there’s the fact that there’s “going to be a lot of men, and...it could be chaos.”
Follow along with the stories of the bones and their storytellers in this month’s episode of The Bone Lab.
Myeashea Alexander is a physical anthropologist, photographer, and rockstar blogger. She has worked with the Smithsonian, The Franklin Institute, and The Clinton Global Initiative University, and she was a recent attendee of a national science communication conference ComSciCon, where Jenny fortuitously met her. She also blogs about her diverse experiences and expertise. Find out more here:
Christine Lee is a Bio-Archaeologist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Los Angeles. She is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a TED Global Fellow. Her research interests include the effect of imperialism on local populations in China and Mongolia. You can learn more about her work here:
Traditional Mongolian Music (not used in the episode but really cool)
Tuvan throat singing
“All Mongols” ethnic group singers
Music: Happiness in Aeroplanes, Project 5am, The Losers
Artwork: Michelle Woronowicz
Production: Jeannie Bailey, Jennifer Fish, Jenny Qi, Kate Woronowicz
Episode 2 - Bones Don't Lie by The Bone Lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.