What is it about some fossils that enable them to take on a life beyond the bones? Why is it that some not only withstand scientific scrutiny but become a part of us on a level that transcends their value as scientific artifacts of our human heritage? Lydia Pyne explains this phenomenon of fossil celebrity in Seven Skeletons, examining the story of human evolution through fossils that have established a solid hold on our hearts and minds as well as human history. From page one, Pyne provides a lens that explores the historical beginnings of the modern human evolution narrative while also capturing the birth of the field of paleoanthropology—both of which have grown in scope and complexity over the last century.
Pyne illustrates through the complex history of each discovery that “bones are mute,” therefore we construct the knowledge that surrounds them, and they become situated in our cultural history (p. 4). It is our need to construct explanations that make cultural sense to us that drives us to seek these connections to humanity's past. Celebrity, whether in life or, in this case, fossils, is shaped by the audience, as well as the story and tradition that surrounds them, which combine to become a part of our own identity as human beings. In fact, it is not the bones themselves but the questions that they evoke that bring them to the forefront of our understanding and interest. These stories are what set the precedent for framing science as part of a larger social narrative, and in this book the narrative is compelling and powerful.
Each chapter is a step back in time—some recent, some distant—to look at the lives and circumstances interlocked with the fossils they found. Each chapter of this book examines a different celebrity fossil or collection: Neanderthal, Piltdown, Taung Child, Peking Man, Lucy, Flo, and Sediba. They represent archetype, original, controversy, and even fraud. Framed in the context of their discovery, they connect with popular culture—Lucy in the sky with diamonds and “The Precious” that is Flo; from the film noir-esque intrigue surrounding the collection that would be known as Peking Man, to the story of a boy and his dog whose wandering discovery rearranged our thinking about the human story in Africa. These stories give a uniquely personal voice to human evolution, one often missing from classrooms and public conversations alike. In fact, it is impossible to read Seven Skeletons without coming away with a greater sense of connection to the scientists, the fossils, and their relevance to our story as human beings.
This book has value in a wide range of contexts. The stories are robust and scientifically sound, making each chapter an interesting study in human evolution. At the same time, Pyne narrates an accurate but engaging history of the practice of science and the characters involved, for better or worse in some cases, that engages the reader in a way most often reserved for fiction novels. I can see these chapters being used from secondary to post-secondary to engage students and teachers on a deeper level in scientific discovery as well as the nature and process of science. Seven Skeletons is written to interest a wide range of readers, from those with casual interest to those who are immersed within evolutionary studies, because it draws the reader into the greater story about the human element—in science, in culture, and in evolution.