STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1

TEKS: 6.1A, 7.1A, 7.12B, 8.1A, B.3A. C.3A

Skeleton Mystery

A science reporter investigates the origins of a human skeleton that hung in her former high school for decades

COURTESY OF ELISSA NADWORNY

REAL BONES: This skeleton once belonged to an actual person. But who?

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the different scientific tools the writer used to learn more about the identity of a skeleton.

Do you have a skeleton in your school—maybe hanging in your science classroom? I don’t mean one whose bones are made of plastic or plaster. I mean a real human skeleton that belonged to an actual person. My old high school had one. It was tucked away in the art room at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Do you have a skeleton in your school? Maybe it’s hanging in your science classroom. I don’t mean one with bones made of plastic or plaster. I mean a real human skeleton from an actual person. My old high school had one. It was tucked away in the art room at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy. That’s in Erie, Pennsylvania.

NPR VIA YOUTUBE

READING THE BONES: Bone expert Dennis Dirkmaat (right) tells the author (left) how he learns a skeleton’s story from the details of its bones.

Many schools have real skeletons. There’s Mr. Bones, a skeleton at a school in New Mexico, and Courtney at a school in Rhode Island.

The skeleton at my old high school didn’t have a name. But it had a story, and I wanted to uncover it. Who had the bones belonged to, and how did they end up at my school? The school principal had heard that the skeleton belonged to a male and came from an area near the Ganges River in northern India. But was that true? I convinced the school to let me borrow the skeleton so I could do some sleuthing.

Many schools have real skeletons. Mr. Bones is a skeleton at a school in New Mexico. Courtney is at a school in Rhode Island.

The skeleton at my old high school didn’t have a name. But it had a story, and I wanted to uncover it. Who had the bones belonged to? How did they end up at my school? The school principal had heard that the skeleton belonged to a male. He thought it came from an area near the Ganges River in northern India. But was that true? I wanted to do some digging. So I talked the school into lending me the skeleton.

SEARCHING FOR CLUES

Now you’re probably thinking: When detectives in movies and on TV shows need to identify a body, the first thing they do is collect a sample of its DNA. This molecule is found in every one of a person’s cells. It carries a unique set of instructions that determines how a person’s body will develop, look, and function.

Examining DNA can reveal a lot, including a person’s gender and ancestry. But DNA tests can cost thousands of dollars and can take a month or more to complete. I didn’t have that kind of money or time. Instead, I called up Dennis Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania.

Now you’re probably thinking about detectives in movies and on TV. When they need to identify a body, they collect a sample of its DNA. This molecule is found in every one of a person’s cells. It carries a one-of-a-kind set of instructions. DNA determines how a person’s body will develop, look, and work.

DNA can reveal a lot. It can tell a person’s gender and family tree. But DNA tests can cost thousands of dollars. And they can take a month or more to complete. I didn’t have that kind of money or time. Instead, I called up Dennis Dirkmaat. He’s a forensic anthropologist at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania.

Dirkmaat studies bones for a living. He often works with law enforcement to identify human remains associated with criminal investigations. “A skeleton can tell us a lot of information,” says Dirkmaat. I handed over the one from my high school, and he and his colleagues got to work measuring its bones and taking notes about their appearance.

Dirkmaat studies bones for a living. He often works with law enforcement. He helps them to identify human remains involved with criminal cases. “A skeleton can tell us a lot of information,” says Dirkmaat. I gave him the one from my high school, and he and his colleagues got to work. They measured its bones and took notes about their appearance.

HIM OR HER?

I was curious if the data Dirkmaat collected could answer one of my main questions: Did this skeleton belong to a man, like the principal thought? Dirkmaat directed my attention to the skeleton’s pelvis. It’s a bone structure at the bottom of the spine to which the legs attach. Females have broader pelvises to make childbirth easier. But the size of our skeleton’s pelvis was hard to interpret—it fell somewhere in between that of a male and a female.

I wondered if Dirkmaat’s data could answer one of my main questions. Did this skeleton belong to a man, like the principal thought? Dirkmaat showed me the skeleton’s pelvis. It’s a bone structure at the bottom of the spine. The legs attach to it. Females have wider pelvises to make childbirth easier. But the size of our skeleton’s pelvis didn’t answer the question. It was somewhere in between that of a male and a female.

NPR VIA YOUTUBE

TAKING MEASURE: Scientists measured every detail of the skeleton’s bones to gather data about its origins.

Fortunately, men and women have other subtle differences in their bones (see Skeleton Comparison). Take the mastoid process, a bony bump where the jaw muscles attach to the skull. Men have bigger jaws than women, so they tend to have bigger mastoids. This feature and others indicated that my school’s skeleton belonged to a female, not a male.

To determine how old she was when she died, Dirkmaat looked at the places where a skeleton’s bones change as a person ages. Babies are born with about 300 bones. But adults have only 206. That’s because as people get older, certain bones fuse. By the time children turn 1, the two plates that make up the front of their skulls have grown together. The same happens to their arm bones as teens. The clavicle, or collarbone, fuses last in their 20s. My school’s skeleton had a thin line on one end of this bone, showing it was in the process of fusing. From this detail, Dirkmaat estimated the woman had been about 25 years old.

Luckily, men and women have other small differences in their bones (see Skeleton Comparison). Take the mastoid process. It’s a bony bump where the jaw muscles attach to the skull. Men have bigger jaws than women, so they usually have bigger mastoids. This feature and others revealed the answer. My school’s skeleton belonged to a female, not a male.

How old was she when she died? A skeleton’s bones change in some places as a person ages. So Dirkmaat looked there. Babies are born with about 300 bones. But adults have only 206. That’s because certain bones fuse as people get older. Two plates make up the front of children’s skulls. These plates grow together by the time children turn 1. The same happens to our upper arm bones as teens. The clavicle, or collarbone, fuses last. That happens in our 20s. My school’s skeleton had a thin line on one end of this bone. It was in the process of fusing. This detail told Dirkmaat that the woman had been about 25 years old.

THE BONE TRADE

I dug into the history of classroom skeletons and found that many came from India. In the 1800s, the country had a legal bone trade, selling the bones of poor people for medical study. Is that how my school skeleton got to America? It turns out, bones hold clues about where they’re from in their atoms. These particles are the smallest units of elements and make up everything, including us.

Diet, in part, determines what elements are found in a person’s bones, says Doug Kennett, an archaeologist at Penn State University. “There’s an old adage: ‘You are what you eat,’” he says. In places where people eat a lot of corn, like in parts of the U.S., bones have a particular chemical signature. But if you live in a coastal region, where people eat a lot of seafood, or in Central Asia, where people eat a lot of rice, your bones have different signatures (see Bone Chemistry).

I dug into the history of classroom skeletons. I found that many came from India. In the 1800s, the country had a legal bone trade. People sold the bones of poor people for medical study. Is that how my school skeleton got to America? I learned that bones hold clues about where they’re from. The clues are in their atoms. These particles are the smallest units of elements. They make up everything, including us.

Different elements can be found in a person’s bones. The mix depends partly on diet, says Doug Kennett. He’s an archaeologist at Penn State University. “There’s an old adage: ‘You are what you eat.’,” he says. People eat a lot of corn in parts of the U.S. In those places, our bones have a certain chemical signature. But in coastal regions, people eat a lot of seafood. In Central Asia, people eat a lot of rice. If you live there, your bones have different signatures (see Bone Chemistry).

COURTESY OF ELISSA NADWORNY

SKULL CLUES: The shape of a skull helps forensic anthropologists determine if a person was male or female.

Kennett took a piece of bone from my school’s skeleton and analyzed its chemical makeup in a machine called a mass spectrometer. Its signature, says Kennett, was “consistent with someone living in India, Pakistan, or Central Eurasia.” So the skeleton might have come from the Ganges region. But was it via the bone trade? To find out, Kennett used radiocarbon dating. It measures a type of radioactive carbon (C) found in all living things. The element emits high-energy particles that break down over time, helping to date objects like bones. Kennett found that the woman likely lived between 1875 and 1920—when the bone trade was in full swing.

Kennett took a piece of bone from my school’s skeleton. He looked at its chemical makeup in a machine called a mass spectrometer. Kennett says its signature was “consistent with someone living in India, Pakistan, or Central Eurasia.” So the skeleton might have come from the Ganges region. But was it through the bone trade? To find out, Kennett used radiocarbon dating. It measures a type of radioactive carbon (C) found in all living things. The element lets off high-energy particles that break down over time. This helps to date objects like bones. Kennett found that the woman probably lived between 1875 and 1920. That’s when the bone trade was going strong.

REST IN PEACE?

The skeleton started out as just a bunch of strung-together bones. But as I learned more, it became a real person: a woman in her mid-20s who likely lived in India in the late 1800s. Alas, no lab test can tell us what she would have wanted to happen to her remains. Some schools have decided to bury their skeletons out of respect. My old high school now faces a tricky question: Should it continue to use the bones as a teaching tool or lay them to rest?

The skeleton started out as just a bunch of bones strung together. But as I learned more, it became a real person. She was a woman in her mid-20s. She probably lived in India in the late 1800s. But what would she have wanted to happen to her remains? Sadly, no lab test can tell us. Some schools have buried their skeletons out of respect. My old high school now faces a tricky decision. Should it use the bones for teaching? Or should it lay them to rest?

ASKING QUESTIONS: What should the author’s high school do with its skeleton? Explain your reasoning.

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