A skeleton is a human being in its most naked form. A life stripped down to its essence. As the foundation of our bodies—indeed, of our very being—skeletons provoke equal measures of fascination and terror.
As an archaeologist excavating burials, I’ve felt connected to another person—separated by centuries of time—by touching their remains. I’ve observed how exhibits of Egyptian mummies and plastinated bodies inspire wonder for others. But as a museum curator, I’ve also learned that for many cultures, human remains are not organic material to be exploited for science, but rather the sacred remnants of ancestors to be revered.
Our physical bodies will exist as motionless bones far longer than as animate flesh. And human skeletons evoke powerful reactions, from reverence to fear, when they’re encountered. Those features imbue skeletons with a surprising power. Through them, people can live on through their earthly remains.
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Bones are an ancient obsession. Archaeologists recently revealed an 11,000-year-old “skull cult” in Turkey. Humanity’s first farmers also ritually de-fleshed, carved, and displayed human crania. For a thousand years, Japanese folklore has warned of the gashadokuro, a colossal starving skeleton who feasts on the living in the dark of night. The Chimbu tribe of Papua New Guinea intimidates enemies by painting their entire bodies in frightening versions of skeletons, becoming an army of the dead. In medieval Europe, the skeleton was commonly portrayed as a memento mori—a reminder of the inevitability of death.
From Hamlet’s gaze into the eye sockets of the departed court jester, to Paris’s underground catacombs (where there are 6 million skeletons for the public to view), to the laughing skulls carved on pumpkins for Halloween, human bones continue to haunt the collective imagination.
My own imagination was stirred when I excavated my first grave along Highway 188 in central Arizona more than 20 years ago. The road needed to be realigned, but more than 300 burials stood in its way, left some 750 years ago by a Native American group scholars call the Salado. As cars whizzed by, I dug into the soft dirt to reveal pearl-white bones. The archaeological work was slow and painstaking—not only because of the sheer number of burials, but also because of their dazzling contents. In the Southwest, ancient graves typically consist of the bones of the dead along with a few nonperishable artifacts, such as pottery or stone. Here, the graves were loaded with shell and turquoise jewelry, stone animal carvings, bone hairpins, and whole jars and stone points.
I had already uncovered two bodies in the shallow pit, and now a third skull appeared. When I finished exposing the left hand of this third individual, I gasped. Her hand was situated just below the right hand of the second. I realized that the pair likely died at the same time and were placed in the grave side-by-side, holding hands.
It was a moment that would shape my view of what human remains mean. Seeing those two ancients tenderly touching each other in death, I had an immediate link to their history, previously lost to the past. But I also felt their humanity surround me in the present.
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Science tends to take a cold view of the dead. Bones, which The Anatomy and Biology of the Human Skeleton describes as the “remnants of mineralized connective tissue,” are made up of cells arranged in a matrix like a spiderweb. When living, they are a bank of salts, calcium, and red blood cells. Adult humans have 206 bones, which shelter vital organs while also working in concert with muscles to give humans their characteristic fluid rigidity. Though made from soft tissue, bones are tremendously strong. They can heal themselves. The human skeleton is a brilliant feat of evolution.
It took centuries for humans to understand it. More than 2,000 years ago, in what is now Turkey, the physician and philosopher Galen undertook one of the first systematic studies of human anatomy. He got it mostly right, but also seeded myths—such as the theory that bones consist of the same matter as semen because they share a similar color.
Later, the Persians took great interest in anatomy, advancing its knowledge along with scholars in China, Japan, and India. But it wasn’t until the cusp of the European Renaissance that a renewed interest in human dissection led to detailed studies of the body’s architecture. The greatest researcher of this period was Leonardo da Vinci, whose detailed illustrations accurately revealed the body’s inner workings. By the 16th century, articulated human skeletons hung in anatomy theaters across Europe.
During the centuries that followed, the science of the human skeleton took a darker turn. Between 1839 and 1849, Samuel G. Morton published his three-volume Crania Americana, which purported to prove the superiority or inferiority of races based on measurements of their skulls. Based on these racist ideas, museums collected thousands of skeletons—mostly of Native Americans, since their graveyards were easiest to pillage.
Today’s researchers reject such views, of course. Biological inheritance is intertwined with behavior, environment, and culture. People are born with bones, but those bones respond to the world that contains them and bodies that live atop their scaffolding. This is why the skeleton continues to be so valuable to archaeologists. Excavated remains tell the stories of the dead—a person’s sex and age at death, along with their disorders and diseases, traumas and infections, clues to their diet, what hand they used most, how hard they worked. Bones are also a vessel for DNA, which allows scientists to trace the migrations of ancient humans and even discover who they had sex with.
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Some cultures intentionally display their dead. The Torajans on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, for example, mummify deceased relatives and keep them in their homes, talking to them and feeding them. Yet many people around the world are distraught that their ancestors lie as specimens on museum shelves.
Some years ago, a group of Native Americans came to visit their ancestors’ remains in the storage area of the museum where I work. They asked me to turn off the lights. We were engulfed in darkness when an elder struck a match and lit a bundle of sage, the sweet smoke filling the air. He then sang a song so loudly that the metal of the cabinets reverberated like an accompanying drumbeat. He said he wanted to be sure that his ancestors’ spirits knew he was there—that he remembered them and cared for them.
Bones are not the same as shards of pottery or beaded moccasins. In 1990, after years of protest, Native Americans secured a federal law that established a process for the return of human remains, funerary offerings, and other cultural items from museums. In the years since, more than 57,000 Native American skeletons and 1.7 million burial goods have been repatriated (although more than 100,000 skeletons and millions more artifacts are still in U.S. museums). This movement has become global, as indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and parts of Africa have demanded the return of their dead.
While some scientists and museums have pushed back against such claims, the native peoples and the scientists agree more than they might realize. Most Native Americans and indigenous peoples do not oppose science; they object to the form of science that robs bodies of their humanity, especially without consent. Likewise, Westerners also respect skeletons when given the opportunity. In 2012, workers discovered a shallow, unmarked grave under a parking lot in Leicester, England. The skeleton it held, scholars soon confirmed, belonged to King Richard III. For more than 500 years, no one had known the exact fate of the English monarch, long portrayed as a tyrant and murderer. The discovery was a revelation. In his bones lay vital clues about the monarch’s life and last days.
Unlike Native Americans, however, the king didn’t go into a museum. His remains sparked an outpouring of grief and love. Locals raised more than $250,000 for a funeral. The body was laid in an oak coffin in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral. Thousands came to view him. After three days, in an intricate ceremony, 10 British Army soldiers carried Richard III to a marble tomb.
In this moment, Richard III was made a king once again, given a fleeting but vitalized second life. His skeleton provoked new ideas about his biography and England’s history. The mere presence of the bones got the living to fund and attend a burial with the pomp and circumstance befitting royalty.
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A fork does not eat. A painting does not gaze. A book cannot think. But objects do induce humans to act and feel. A fork affords nourishment; a painting creates the experience of beauty; a book stimulates learning. Through their form, cultural function, historical role, or inherent qualities, objects exert their influence and power.
Perhaps nothing does this more profoundly than human bones. They are the medium through which people live on after death. The sight of skeletons can draw or repel. When used for historical purposes, they provide answers about life. When used spiritually, they provoke questions about what lies after death. Perhaps this is why people feel the power of skeletons so viscerally. They seem alive and dead all at once. That’s why they live on so vibrantly, and why people can’t help to react to them with both awe and fear. You and I and everyone else will surely die, but our bones will live on without us.