What the Bones Tell Us

Author Jeffrey H. Schwartz, professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, has assembled a wide-ranging book on osteological analysis—the science of examining bones and fossils to decipher the past, both recent and ancient. Schwartz begins with a thorough and interesting explanation of what happens to bones after a person or animal dies and what scientists look for when analyzing these remains, then persuasively argues that contrary to some historical accounts, mass sacrifices of children did not take place at the ancient city of Carthage. He skips to the near past to describe his work with the police, determining the sex, age, and other characteristics of a person from the individual’s bones and helping officers find graves of murder victims. In the second half of the book, Schwartz revisits the past, this time to examine the various theories of human evolution. He argues that orangutans and humans may be more closely linked than most scientists believe.

Although WHAT THE BONES TELL US contains some fascinating insights, it suffers from an overly wide scope that leads to a lack of coherence: It reads more like a collection of articles than a unified work. Also, occasionally, the prose bogs down in technical detail, as in the author’s description of the pelvis in the chapter on crime, a chapter that potentially had the greatest interest for the general reader.