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As my eyes adjusted to the brightly lit laboratory, my camp group’s assigned lab table came into clear focus, along with a myriad of equipment, specimens, and artifacts in my periphery, most of which I couldn’t even put a name to. Hundreds of human bones in all conditions were splayed out randomly across my lab table. They were frail and discolored; they smelled strongly of musk and dirt. They were yellowing and marred, not the perfect white structures you see portrayed in a biology classroom. These bones were authentic and unglorified.
A serious-looking lady in a long, white lab coat cleared her throat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats.”
Chairs scrape against the tiled floor.
“Each group has the bones of a subject in front of you. First, I would like you to assemble the bones into the general shape of a skeleton. I will come by and check your bone placement in a few hours.”
It struck me that she called the pile of bones just that: “a subject.” The lab coat lady seemed distant and unaffected by the room full of musty bones.
I kept my hands in my lap, careful to not accidentally brush up against the bones in fear that they would simply disintegrate. I had never touched authentic bones before; I had only seen them presented on television.
Two summers ago, I arrived at a Forensic Anthropology Camp with my pillow in one hand and notebook in the other. I had decided to attend this summer camp because of one simple fact: I like bones. Criminal Minds and Bones are my favorite television shows on Netflix. The scientists and detectives in these shows are cloaked with an aura of magic and wisdom. This type of show has always been so entertaining to me because in each episode every case that comes in, no matter how high profile, they are able to crack it with their intelligence and creative thinking. I am captivated by their ability to look at a pile of bones and extract the life story of that person using simple details such as the length of the femur or a dent in the parietal bone. Every mark on the bones that the scientists study show an actual event in that person’s life, and they use this as evidence.
My first class on my first day of camp began with a lecture on human anatomy, where I learned the basics about the crucial bones that make up the human skeleton: the femur, the parietal, the clavicle. As a few minutes of hectic note-taking passed, no one else was writing. Ignoring this, I took notes and gathered all of the information about bone diseases, human anatomy, and deadly weapons that I could so that when it came to lab time, I would be prepared.
“Osteoporosis causes fragile bones that are susceptible to breaks and fractures.”
“Blunt weapons create fractures that branch out from the point of impact. Sharp weapons create divots and holes in the bones with more distinct boundaries.”
“Males have smaller pelvic bones than women because the process of giving birth requires a larger pelvis diameter.”
I was bombarded with new facts and information within the timeframe of a few short hours. I was in this camp for the wonder of bones and I wanted to be able to emulate all that I learned. I had the mindset of Brenner and Hotchner, the detectives in the television shows that I loved.
After given the instructions by the lady in the long, white lab coat, my lab group turned our focus to the table. Piece by piece my group recreated the human skeleton. The bones began to truly look human, starting with the skull, to the ribs, to the toes. The bones had marks and scratches, ridges and contusions. Unlike in my favorite television shows, the marks on these bones weren’t staged. This “subject” had once been alive. Living, breathing, crying, laughing. The shape of the formed skeleton made it easy to imagine what this “subject” had looked like when it was alive, and what it had experienced throughout their lifetime.
Once we were finally done setting up the skeleton, it was apparent that he had been a middle-aged man. The only parts unfinished were the ribs and the cranial bones because of the vast number of shattered pieces they were in. His bones were scarred and he had a small pelvis, with a large femur, indicating he was male.
“Yes, that is exactly right. He was 58 years old. Nice job,” said the lady in the long, white lab coat.
The labeling of a gender and age made the situation feel even more dire to me. I teared up knowing that these bones had once been a man with a personality and a background, and now he was lying on the table as a dusty pile of bones. He could have been a son, father, husband, or brother. I no longer viewed the bones as pieces of evidence or as objects from my favorite shows, but as the continuing parts of someone’s life story. It was my job to understand his past and carry on his memory.
The lady in the long, white lab coat told us, “Begin task two. Completely reconstruct the pieces of cracked skull and shattered ribs.”
We spent many grueling hours of piecing together these splintered ribs and battered cranial bones. There must have been hundreds of shards. We knew the bones all fit together, but the possibilities of combinations were endless. It seemed impossible to find which bone shard matched with what, but I knew that this man deserved to be fully put together again, and it was up to us to do it. He deserved my time and attention. The bones were puzzle pieces that when finally connected would help tell an unspoken history. After many hours, we finally had his bones taped and set in place.
With his entire skeleton intact, our final tasks were to study the bones from the top of the skull all the way down to the phalanges, collecting data and making inferences. I compared each and every bone to my notes, searching for his life story. The man in front of me lived a painful life, having many bone diseases and being abused multiple times throughout his lifetime. The ends of his pelvis and femur were yellow and cracked throughout. He had osteoporosis, which made him susceptible to bone fracturing. His hips, arms, and legs had been broken many times over the course of his life. The discoloration of his bones pointed to a life of malnutrition and a lack of vitamins. My group’s best assumption was that the man had been homeless, which was apparent through his poorly structured bones and the obvious indications of muggings over the course of his lifetime. He had a long history of breaks and bone bruises, mostly located in areas of defense when being attacked in a horizontal position. The bones in his hands and arms were discolored and had healed over many times, creating layers and ridges. This further proved our homelessness assumption, because he had to sleep on the streets and encounter all types of potentially dangerous people. Most horrifically of all, his life was ended when he either jumped in front of or was pushed in front of a moving train. We made this conclusion based on the most recent high-impact breaks of his shins and sternum. After checking with the woman in the lab coat, she reviewed her notes and matter-of-factly told us that we were correct with our assumptions. No sense of emotion crossed her face as she told us. I felt sick to my stomach.
I went back to my camp dorm that night with tears in my eyes. I prayed that his happiness exceeded the pain that his body revealed. I know that it is unlikely, but I have faith in the goodness of God and I cannot fathom thinking of a life that could have been void of joy or hope. I hope he knew that he was loved, even if he never felt it physically in his own life. I pray that his soul is at peace, and I have discovered that this poor man’s life may have had an unknown purpose: to inspire. I feel obliged to learn from him and the life story that I extracted from his bones. I knew that my experience at camp was more than just an ode to the television shows that I had loved. This summer camp was pivotal in my understanding of the fragility of life. This man’s bones had his life events etched into them in a painful way that I hope most people never have to experience.
This camp also enlightened me to the blessing of my own health. I am nothing but the bones God gave me, but somehow I am able to live with love, happiness, and laughter. This camp gave me the honor and privilege to bring one of these people’s stories out of a laboratory and into life. Everyone dies and leaves behind their bones, seemingly lifeless. But even these bones can speak to us. They speak of pain, hurting, and disparity. They speak of struggles and afflictions. The worst in people’s lives can be illuminated by their very bones. Their bones serve as a timeline from the day of their birth to the day they die. Someday, my own bones will tell my story, fortunately one of blessing and safety- other than the occasional sports injury. Now when I watch my favorite television shows I still admire the cases and their fascinating stories, but they are also a reminder that every human is simply a set of gifted bones with a story of their own.