WHAT THE BONES TELL US by Jeffrey H. Schwartz

WHAT THE BONES TELL US

Adventures of an Anthropologist
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Schwartz (Anthropology/Univ. of Pittsburgh) gives us the bare bones and more about the science of osteological analysis. There's a vast multitude of bone chips here--of murder victims, Neandertals, Australopithecus africanus--but they don't quite hang together into a coherent skeleton. The main reason is Schwartz's impressive professional versatility. It seems that one day he's expounding on the laws of taphonomy (the history of bones after death), the next he's off in the woods exhuming corpses or sifting dirt at an archaeological dig halfway around the world. His account sometimes grows as scattered as the bones he examines- -though he can be riveting, as when debunking ancient reports (Plutarch, Sophocles) of massive child sacrifice in Carthage, or explaining current theories on the origins, nature, and demise of the Neandertals. In a field often ruled by cockiness, Schwartz's reticence to make judgments is refreshing (``What does, or did, the peculiarly large Neandertal occipitomastoid crest do? Who knows?''). Related to this, and even more welcome, is his rejection of scientific dogma (``what seems real today may very well end up in the pile of discarded truths of tomorrow''). Other passages, however, are calcified with technical data: A description of the human pelvis that goes on for pages is typically labyrinthine. And still other bits are just plain grisly: When Schwartz and the police undercover a victim of mass murder, we hear that ``the pelvic region itself cupped a stinky mass of what had once been the lower intestines, which, over the years, had turned into a dark and soaplike mass.'' One senses that the author's occupation is exciting--but also of rather limited appeal. Memories of digs in Israel, decaying sheep carcasses in Wales, and crime labs in the US add more color; Schwartz's rehash of the ideas of Darwin and Huxley, by contrast, will strike most readers as old hat. Sturdy on the whole, with signs of osteoporosis. (Photos and line drawings--not seen.)

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1993
ISBN: 0-8050-1056-4
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1992