The Histories Within Our Bones

Paleontologist Brian Switek’s new book Skeleton Keys explores the bones beneath our skin and the evolutionary story they reveal; Switek also investigates the bones’ role in uncovering history, as well as the illegal trading of bones today.

Note: This review has been updated to reflect the author’s preferred pronouns (they/them). Though the review refers to the author as Switek, their name upon publication, the author now identifies as Riley Black. You can read about their story on Nature’s Career Column, “Queer voices in paleontology.”

The first thing you’ll notice about author Brian Switek’s most recent book is that it’s a light read. It’s a small, comfortable-to-hold hardback that promises a brief but enthralling read. But a whole book, you may be wondering, about bones? Is there really that much to say on the matter? There is, and you’re left with the feeling that Switek knows significantly more than they let on.

Skeleton Keys is one of those beautiful popular science books you can devour over a weekend or during a long flight. Because it reads like a conversation between you and the author, it’s hard to put down and break away from. While you read, you get the feeling Switek is a friendly person who genuinely cares about making sure you understand and are excited by the stories they have to share. Their warmth and humor emanate from the page.

But enough about Switek. It’s really the content of the book that matters, isn’t it? Skeleton Keys does not disappoint. We get to explore museums alongside Switek, even visiting the legendary Lucy:

“The first time I saw one of the restorations of what she looked like in life, a the American Museum of Natural History’s Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, I was shocked by how a human with such a massive reputation could be so tiny. In that display, eyes scanning the horizon and holding hands with another of her kind, Lucy stands only a meager three feet, seven inches tall. Prior to that point all the images and restorations I had seen had shot Luct straight from the front or angled up, making her seem larger than life. The bones told the same story. If I lifted off the glass and carefully plucked up each piece – which I was not crazy enough to try to do – I could have easily cradled what remained of Lucy’s skull in one hand.”

Brian Switek, Skeleton Keys, 2019

The care with which Switek treats their subject is like an invitation to the reader to view bones with the same sense of wonder and appreciation. As they describe various skeletons and their features in depth, you may, as I did, find yourself marveling at your own elbow or hand. You might, as I did, reach up and touch your cheekbones, gently reminding yourself of the skull beneath your skin. Your bones are an intimate part of who you are, and yet we’re so out of touch with them, we don’t think about them unless we accidentally break one, or if they cause us pain.

Switek wants to wake their readers to wake from their state of unconsciousness and inspire a fascination, like the curiosity of children. With their enthusiasm for dinosaurs, this comes naturally. As readers, I think there is something deeply and inherently valuable about embracing this childlike curiosity and enthusiasm, with no inhibitions. We are learning about our world, and ourselves.

“If only a skeleton from our species had been laid out next to Lucy’s in that dark exhibit hall. Then the family resemblance would have struck home even harder,” writes Switek. “Not to mention that it might have given visitors a better appreciation for what’s inside of us. I know I didn’t appreciate our own skeletal form until around the time I visited Lucy, when I was taking a human osteology course at Rutgers University.”

Inspiring a newfound appreciation for bones and the skeleton within us is the ultimate goal of Skeleton Keys. You’ll be armed with enough surprising facts to impress any guest at the next cocktail party you attend, but more importantly, this book will inspire you to think more about the bones that make your body possible.

While I read this book, I live-tweeted some of my thoughts about it. You can read those tweets below:

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer and professional bookworm. Wrangling horses and microbes in the Pacific Northwest. Aspiring old cat lady. Genderqueer (she/they).

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