Whose Bones Are These? Investigating A Classroom Skeleton


There’s an old skeleton hanging in the art room of this high school in Erie, Pa. It isn’t plastic.
It’s made of real bones that belonged to a real person. But no one knows who that person was. Not the art teacher, Mrs. Leasure. “I have no idea where he came from. 
It could have been here for 100 years.” Not the principal, Mr. Vieira. “The lore is that it came from the Ganges.” “We consistently hear that it’s male based
on the bone structure.” And not my friend Elissa Nadworny. She went to school here
and now she works with me at NPR. When I found out my school had a human skeleton, I wanted to find out everything I could about it. So here at Skunk Bear we decided to see what science
could tell us about these bones On TV they always start with one thing: “Her DNA” “DNA” “DNA sample” “DNA” So we took the skeleton to a DNA expert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Dr. Logan Kistler and asked, “Can you get DNA from an old skeleton?” “It’s probably going to take four to six weeks
of lab work and analysis, might cost up to about $5,000.” OK, so no DNA analysis. We needed to find someone who could tell us something by just looking at the bones. So we went back to Erie – to Mercyhurst University where we met Dennis Dirkmaat. He reads bones for a living, working with law enforcement to identify remains associated with crimes. There’s a lot of information to be told from the skeleton. He called in some colleagues to measure every
inch of our skeleton. First up – is this skeleton a man like everyone thinks? “We usually start with the pelvis.” Females have broader pelvises to make childbirth easier. But this pelvis is kind of hard to interpret – it’s somewhere in the middle. But there are more clues in other parts of the body. A very clear marker is the mastoid process. That’s the bony bump where the jaw muscles
attach to the skull. Men have bigger jaw muscles so they have bigger
bumps than women. And this skeleton has a small bump. And there are other clues too: the shape of the eye sockets the brow ridges the curve at the back of the skull All the features here indicate that this is female. When we walked in here we thought for sure this guy, this is a male. OK …. next …. was she young or old? To get an age, Dirkmaat’s team looked at places where the skeleton’s bones had fused. See … we’re born with about 300 separate bones. but around the time we hit 40 we only have 206. That’s because at specific times in our lives
certain bones fuse together. Two plates at the front of the skull fuse
in our first year. Our upper arm bone fuses in our teens. And then there’s the clavicle. There’s a little line there that tells us that it’s in the process of fusing. This is probably somebody 20 to 30 probably mid-20s. Wow. I wasn’t expecting it to be that young. Next, her height. Dirkmaat’s team took a few bone measurements and used them to calculate how tall she was. This one came out just a little above 5 feet. ADAM: How tall are you? ELISSA: I’m 5-3. ADAM: This is sort of like almost you ELISSA: I know it’s really freaking me out. The other aspect of the big four in our biological profile is the ancestry. Dirkmaat’s team compared her head measurements
to a digitized database of skulls from around the world. And another surprise – the computer program says this skull looks most like a Japanese female. But there’s a lot of uncertainty here. And the most Dirkmaat will say is: “It’s probably Asian.” So we’re starting to build a life story. This is a young woman who has Asian ancestry. So the next question is where is she from? Did she grow up near Erie where we found her?
Or could she have lived in Japan? OR … near the Ganges like the principal heard? Well I did some research and it turns out
that a lot of skeletons in medical schools, art schools and high schools actually came from India. There was a shady – but legal – trade in human
remains between India and the West that started in the 1800s. So can we tell if this skeleton got here as
part of that bone trade? These bones probably hold more clues. They’re just hidden, deep down, in their very atoms. So we sent off a very tiny piece of bone to a geochemistry lab to see what they could
tell us. “Hello this is Doug Kennett calling from Penn State.” “Hello!” “Hey Doug.” Kennett is the guy who got our sample, dunked it in acid, burned it into a gas and sorted its molecules in this giant machine. Believe it or not, that gave us a clue about where she came from … by telling us what she ate. This is sort of an old adage that you are what you eat. If you live where they eat a lot of stuff made from corn, like in Pennsylvania, your bones have one chemical signature. No corn, but a certain mix of land plants and animals, like you’d find in continental Asia, a different signature. And if you eat a lot of seafood, like you
probably would in Japan, different again. So … what did the bones tell us? This woman’s diet looked like this. “Probably not an island or a coastal environment, so certainly consistent with someone living
in India, Pakistan, Central Eurasia.” So she could have come from the Ganges region. And she could have been transported to the
U.S. via this bone trade but only if the dates line up. Did she die when this bone trade was happening? Kennett’s first step was to look for
a chemical time stamp. Back in the 1950s nuclear testing flooded
the world with huge amounts of radioactive carbon. “We call it a bomb spike in the atmosphere.” And anyone who lived through it, or was born
after it, has lots of that radiocarbon in their bones. But in our sample, Kennett didn’t find this marker. So we can say definitively that this person
did not live after 1955. But he was able to read more subtle markers to figure out when she did live. The most likely interval that this individual
lived was between 1875 and 1920. So it kind of fits right in that timeline that these skeletons would be coming to the U.S. And it’s so weird to think that like at
the beginning of this process, it was basically a pile of bones on a string. And then the more you learn about it, it becomes this real person. All this new information just underlines
a bunch of really tricky questions. Should skeletons like these be used
in classrooms at all? And if not, how should we lay them to rest? No lab test can tell us what any of these people believed in or what they would have wanted.

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