The following article is excerpted from the May 1, 2001 issue of the
Marsha Ogilvie's hands carefully, respectfully, lift the skull from an elongate cardboard carton, and she says, "He's in good shape." In the carton is the rest of him, his vertebrae strung together like chunky beads, his ribs in a clear plastic bag, the heavy thighbones (femurs) and shinbones (tibias) on the bottom so as not to break the more fragile parts. Nothing is unusual about this scene in the osteology lab at the University of New Mexico's Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque. Human skeletons are cataloged and analyzed here every day. Nothing unusual.
Recently awarded a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of New Mexico, Ogilvie explains why she suspects the skull belonged to a male. Among other things, she says, "See this nice browridge, and these mastoid processes behind the ears? They're larger, they project farther than a female's." Here in the osteology lab that--over a period of 12 years--she apprenticed in, and later managed while studying for her master's and then her doctorate, no one is at all amazed that Ogilvie is blind.
From the carton, she fetches a tibia, smiles and says, "It looks to me like he wasn't a total couch potato." Her seeing fingers flutter over the smooth length of the bone and then the articular surface at the ends, with little holes like a hardened sponge, where it joins with the knee and the foot.
"The flatter the tibia is, and the more triangular in cross section, the more mobile the guy was," she says, "but you can't make any kind of real judgment based only on one bone. It's all too relative." Next to be checked is a femur. It is essentially cylindrical, but with a knob that fits into the hip, and along the rear of its length the bone extends out a bit in a long ridge. "This ridge means he was pretty mobile. Probably walked a lot."
Bone is living tissue, and it responds to stress by adding to the stressed area. Similarly, it gives up material if not used. Most of us do not have an image of ourselves as a skeleton, she says, and if we do, we don't think of our bones as malleable. But they are: bones tell stories. "You get to know something about people who you never met, and to a bone aficionado, that's really exciting."
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