Though we normally review and interview writers of fiction, when I heard about Lydia Pyne’s new book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, I knew I had to make an exception.
Seven Skeletons is the story of how finding seven partial humanoid remains changed our understanding of how we became humans. It’s also a story about the intersection of science and culture—one of these fossils was found to be fraudulent, another was lost to time, and still others confounded scientists when they were first discovered. Her book says as much about the times in which a discovery was made as it does about the discovery itself.
Dr. Pyne divides the book by fossil and tells the narrative story of each one. Even though I’m an anthropologist by day, and I’ve lectured about many of these skeletons, I still sometimes forgot I wasn’t reading fiction…. To spin the old cliché, sometimes true stories are pretty exciting too.
Mary Sullivan: I picked up this book because I teach anthropology at a community college, and I thought I’d be able to “bone” up on my paleoanthropology (terrible pun intended) as well as get some interesting tidbits for my students. What do you want a reader who’s not necessarily an anthropologist to get out of it? Why did you choose this subject?
Lydia Pyne: Never apologize for a pun!
One of the things that I really wanted to emphasize with Seven Skeletons is the relationship between science, history, and culture. I also wanted to explore how and why some scientific discoveries become famous and others don’t — in other words, why we “know” some fossils and don’t know others.
Each of the fossils is told as a mini-biography which, I hope, helps introduce the fossils to audiences that might not be immediately familiar with their scientific significance. At the same time, I wanted to expand the story arch of the fossil from just “discovery-scientific analyses-museum display;” to that end, I included images and ephemera from the archives that offers a cultural dimension to the fossils that anthropologists or other experts might not be familiar with. On a large scale, I wanted to emphasize the social processes of “doing science” and how that impacts the lives of these seven fossils.
MS: In your book, you tell the story of seven skeletons that gained fame for shaping our understanding of evolution. But more than just seven fossils are significant. Why did you want to trace famous fossils? What do they contribute that their less famous counterparts do not?
LP: That’s a really great point — there are a plethora of fossils that contribute to the understanding of human evolution. Certainly more than just these seven. I focused the book on fossils that I felt had become celebrities and with that cachet and status are able to serve as ambassadors of science. These are fossils that are familiar to audiences — for example, media announcements for just about every new fossil discovery will reference Lucy in some way. I think it’s important to understand that the celebrity or fame of a scientific discovery comes from is scientific importance, of course, but celebrity also comes from other cultural audiences that shape the life of the fossil — museums, media, etc.
MS: You write that “science doesn’t act in a cultural vacuum,” which struck me as the thesis of the book. How does the “hype” surrounding some finds impact scientific interpretations? Or does “science” manage to remain unfazed by the culture in which it’s done?
LP: One of my favorite things that I tracked down was the original press release of Lucy’s discovery — it was published in the Ethiopian Herald in 1974. At that point, the fossil hadn’t been studied in depth (it had just been discovered a couple of weeks prior), but even in that first media presentation, Lucy had her name. She was “Lucy” before she was “Australopithecus afarensis,” which I think is important in tracing how she became as iconic as she did. She was able to be anthropomorphized and personified because so much of her skeleton had been recovered, but also because, from the get go, the fossil had a persona. In Seven Skeletons, I really wanted to emphasize how much science and culture influence each other and that give-and-take shows up in how fossils interact with audiences.
MS: Of the seven skeletons you discuss in your book, which do you find most intriguing and why?
LP: That’s actually a really hard question! Although it’s hard to pick just one, I really enjoyed researching the Taung Child from South Africa. I spent time working with the archives at the University of the Witwatersrand, studying the Raymond Dart papers. (Dart was the fossil’s discoverer.) In the collections, I found photos, sketches, the fan fiction, so many things that I had never heard of or seen before — I felt like these materials helped me to see the Taung Child fossil in new ways.
MS: Why is it important to understand the larger social and cultural background of fossils? Why does it matter if, say, a fossil was nicknamed after characters in a blockbuster movie (such as “the Hobbit” Homo floresiensis) or after a Beatles song (“Lucy” Australopithecus afarensis)?
LP: If a fossil has a nickname or a personality, it’s easier for that fossil to be remembered. It’s a scientific discovery that is known because it’s known.
I think that understanding the social and cultural background of the fossils helps to understand the process of doing science. The history of the science helps us understand how interpretations of fossils are made and, especially, how these interpretations change over time. Working through the social and cultural aspects of a fossil helps to understand that a fossil isn’t a static thing, but something that depends on its contexts.
Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, among other outlets. She can be found online at www.pynecone.org. Seven Skeletons is currently available at all major retailers.
Q: What’s the most interesting discovery about human history that you’ve read about? Do you regularly follow such discoveries in the news?