Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: The Secret Life of Bones

It is very rare that you come across a book that looks at a single subject yet finds a number of ways to dissect it from every angle possible. However, that is exactly what The Secrets of Bones by Brian Switek (the pen name of Riley Black) manages to complete, with both information and a flair that compels you to carry on reading. When it comes to bones, they aren’t something we often think about as a society despite the fact we’ve all got them. Skeletons have become symbols for the dead but I suspect most people would comment on bones be a nuisance when trying to tuck into their KFC. In my mind, The Secrets of Bones helps to peel back the stigma and bias we have in regards to bones, presenting them in a new light.

Black shows that the proverb of ‘dead men tell no tales’ is complete and utter nonsense. Think of all the huge amounts of information we have gathered about extinct animals, mainly from the bones they left behind. Bones are incredibly ancient and the journey the reader goes on throughout The Secret Life of Bones starts back in the Cambrian and ends in the present day. There aren’t many other books that I can think of where such a journey over more than half a billion years is as enjoyable and well written as this one. Whilst this story my start with Pikaia (who is a long extinct chordate and not a Pokémon), it ultimate ends with ourselves and our skeletons.

Humans have around 206 bones (there can be more or less in some cases) but none of these are as symbolic as our skull. If you found a human femur or a vertebra in a field, you probably wouldn’t recognise them as such. However, if you came across a human skull I’m sure all of that would change. This has often led to failings in science which can lead to rather shocking consequences, as is the case of phrenology. An early practise of anthropology that measured the bones in an attempt to enforce stereotypes and oppress slaves. Then there is the case of Kennewick Man, a story I was not aware of until reading this book which again highlights the difficulties and damage these past ‘studies’ have created in the modern world.

There is also information on Charles Walcott who discovered the infamous Burgess Shale, that wonderful rock formation which holds the secrets of the Cambrian Sea. We’re also introduced to Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh who were eminent American palaeontologists known for waging the Bone Wars, whilst trying to name as many new species of dinosaurs. To me the most fascinating part of the book is a chapter about the discovery of Richard III and how he was identified from a skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park in 2015. There is so much to keep you fixated that you you start to question why you’d never looked at bones this way before. I know one thing for certain, I’ll never glace at the skeleton of any being the same again.

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