All That Death: the Reality of Studying Human Evolution

Dark and eerie tombstones at St Mary's graveyard

St. Mary’s graveyard, Whitby, England,

I have always been interested in ancient people. Who were they? What was life like? I’ve had obsessions with Vikings, bog bodies, and Ötzi (the Ice Man). For me it was a natural progression of interest into those species that lived before us, our human evolution. When I decided to go back to school in my more mature years, I started with Physical Anthropology 101 at the local community college. I loved it right away. Glass cases of famous hominin fossil casts, as well as real and cast skeletons of existing primates, lined the room where we sat at lab-style tables. I learned about bipedalism, its advantages and disadvantages, and the massive expansion of the evolution of our brain size. I ate it all up.

One day, the professor was discussing the famous Taung child. She described exciting new evidence discovered on the 2.5 million-year-old skull, of what is thought to be a 3- or 4-year-old Australopithecus africanus child. The evidence shows puncture marks at the bottom of the eye sockets, exactly like those made by eagles in monkey skulls in Africa today. In addition, eggshells and remains of other animals that a predatory bird would hunt were found with the skull. The professor described a scene in which the child became separated from its mother in an open field. A huge bird swooped down, snatched up the child and carried it off to its nest to feed on it. The mother, I immediately imagined, left screaming on the ground. The professor went on to say that for much of human evolution, we humans were prey. Even becoming hunters did not make us immune to animal attack. This was the day it began to dawn on me (duh!) that the study of human evolution involves the study of human death. And that death very often means the death of many babies and children. Yes, I know that should be obvious, but somehow it wasn’t to me, not at first. Or at least I didn’t realize how intimately I would study it, and what it would mean for me emotionally. I’m a mother too. My daughter is 7 years old now, but when I heard that lecture she was about 4, around the same age as the child that had become dinner for an eagle.

Taung child

Taung child, photo: Lee Berger

I was spooked by this imagery the rest of the day. And I thought to myself, come on, that happened 2.5 million years ago, and to a species that was still very different from us, especially cognitively. But I suspect that its mother still was horrified, and even mourned. I could hear her wail of anguish across the years. It sent a chill down my spine.

Fast forward past some algebra and statistics (I was a theatre undergrad, I had some catching up to do) to when I’m admitted to a master’s program at a university and sitting in osteology class, (the study of human bones). I can’t help feeling relieved to hear we are starting with casts of human bones, but soon we are using real ones, which my professor acquired from a medieval cemetery in France. I touch them and am surprised at how light and dry they feel. These are the bones of a person who lived, I thought. I mean, how can you not think that? And because I’m me, I can’t help wanting to know their story. I’m studying science now, not performing theatre, but the search for human stories continues for me. Those questions return: Who was this person? What was their life like? How did they feel about dying? I go to the lab to do my assignments, often when no one else is there. Just me and the bones. I can’t decide if it’s eerie or comforting, whether it’s disrespectful to study their bones, or a way of honoring them. Is it strange that seeing them as mere tools to be used as part of my job never crosses my mind?

One day we are learning about ways to determine the age of human remains at death. For immature remains, the sequence of dental tooth eruption is the best indicator. This means the degree to which baby teeth or permanent teeth are present and how much they’ve grown. This method is very accurate in modern human juveniles younger than about 15 years old, and can pinpoint a range of three months up to the first year of life, and after that to within a year. Then the professor produces a mandible (jaw bone) of a five-year-old child and passes it around the room. When it gets to me I can clearly see through the broken hole in the thin outer layer of the bone a permanent incisor getting ready to erupt above the gum. The baby tooth is gone. I breathe deeply. At that very moment, my own daughter is at home, being tucked in by her father, excited that her first front tooth had fallen out. I cannot stop myself from imagining the parents of that child, and their grief when they lost her or him. Was the child sick? Malnourished? What happened to its family? Was the child scared when it died? But this was medieval France, hundreds of years ago. Stop spinning tales, Vivian, it’s time to learn how to be a scientist.

The sad and profound truth is that the study of human evolution is founded on the study of human death. Not passing on a trait that is a disadvantage (for example in a new environment) means you don’t have “successful offspring,” which means your young don’t survive long enough to reproduce. The story of our evolution is littered with the bodies of the young. Because while the phrase “survival of the fittest” is so often misunderstood and misused as some bloody battle in the wild, understood in its original meaning it describes juveniles not surviving or never reproducing because their inherited traits were not “fit to the environment,” or put them at a disadvantage.


Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) 1493 by Michael Wolgemut

All that death. In years past, before I admitted to myself I wanted to go back to school, I spent late nights on the internet, reading everything I could about bog bodies, or curled up with a book about the Ice Man. But now I was facing the reality of the choice that I had made, that to really study these bodies and ask questions about their stories, and even to make a career out of it, meant living with ghosts in my mind. In my eagerness to hurl myself down the path of prehistory, grabbing hungrily at exciting and moving stories, I had somehow never stopped to notice the bodies strewn along the way. The lives cut short, the grief of that person’s community.

I don’t have any answers yet for how it feels, or whether it’s even right to dig up people’s graves. I’m struggling to find ways to manage the meeting of my storytelling, improvisational theatrical side with my curious, analytical science side. I know that I see both storytelling and science as asking the same essential questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? And even: What does it all mean? (Remember that scientists must interpret their findings and put them in a context, which creates meaning.) When I asked my osteology professor for more details about the medieval people whose bones we were studying, she said that she didn’t know much and that it was better that way. I wonder, is it? Maybe she’s right. I know that handling human remains is still not something I do casually. Maybe I would learn to if I got a job in a lab. It seems more practical that way, like a surgeon who doesn’t want to get to know their patient’s life story before operating. For now though, I’m excited about this new science-y way of exploring humanity. The stories will come when they come.

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3 Responses to All That Death: the Reality of Studying Human Evolution

  1. Star Irvine says:

    Have you ever tried ancient bone broth, scientist Vivian ?

  2. vsteindal says:

    I think before I studied Anthropology I thought about other time periods that would be more fun or cooler than this one. But now I’m pretty content with the one I’m in. Although I would love to be a fly on the wall in several places and time periods, so I could report back my findings!

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