Review

Skeleton Keys by Brian Switek

Note: My pre-order finally arrived. Just under 2 weeks from release, which is reasonable, considering. Postage to Australia no longer takes a year, but it felt like it! Finished it this morning, so here are my thoughts.

This book is a much a love story as it is a friendly introduction by someone passionate about life, nature, and how we interact with it - and with ourselves.

Rather than dry and didactic, reading Skeleton Keys is a bit like sharing a slow walk on a sunny day - interesting byways in conversation, unexpected humour (chapter titles are all based on folk sayings concerning bones), a little sadness and some odd and unexpected byways to meander along.

The first half of the book is basically about what bone is, how and why it developed, and how it has been re-purposed. Finny feet developed to help feet around in mucky shallows. The wonder of kneecaps and the bones used for hearing. His discussion and examples of his dog (Jet) and Cat (Margarita) to help explain the importance of joint construction (and why dinosoid intelligences wouldn’t use claw hammers).
Kudos to him, in my opinion, for his use of osteological sex, using they/them instead of he/she, unless their gender is known. A small point, perhaps, but to my mind a respectful one.
Sections of this book I already knew about, but even there Brian Switek has expanded my knowlege. I knew, for example, that Cope (he of the infamous Bone Wars with Marsh over finding the biggest, best, fullest and strangest dinosaur remains) directed his skeleton and brain be preserved for future study (and comparison with his lifelong nemesis, Marsh – who had himself buried instead). I did not know that his brain is still preserved according wishes.
It fleshed out (yes, not sorry!) how so much we think we know is incomplete. His section on how we, as humans, deal with our dead was fascinating – from St Brides Church in London with dateable remains has rewritten an assumption long held on how to guesstimate age at death, to the nightmare of ‘collecting’ body parts from ‘primitives’ (which has mutilated relationships between ‘them’ and ‘us’ for generations).
He underscores the importance of the pathologies to be found in bones, and drawing conclusions from it. Human or animal, cavities in teeth, violent death, disease, old age, all allow inferences to be drawn. If a normally deadly cause of damage is healed, or shows long-term effects, then the owner of those bones either somehow managed to endure or, more likely, received care from others. A crippled neandertal, a gored wolf, someone crippled with arthritis all needed help to survive, a surrounding group willing to support them, rather than ‘feed yourself or starve’ brutality.
Bones have a lot to teach us. The bones of others like, and unlike, ourselves included. We also have a lot to learn about how we respect (or disrespect) them. The latter part of the book, in part, deals with this and serves to illustrate the old adage ‘to get respect, you must give respect’.
Lastly, even the end notes and references are worth a glance. Unfortunately, they’re also reawakened my desire for a couple of books which, as far as I know, are currently unavailable.

Amazon: Skeletal Keys: The Secret Life Of Bones

Book Depository: Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life Of Bones

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