About Bone Turns Five

September 17 probably came and went without you recognizing that it was About Bone’s fifth birthday. I started blogging then in 2017 because I wanted to write a book about bone. Before accepting such a proposal, a publisher wants to know that the author has a “platform.” This might be, for instance, 10 million twitter followers or international visibility in the daily news. So to entice a publisher, I started blogging to increase my platform.

A year later when I submitted the proposal for Bone, Inside and Out, to publishers, WW Norton bit, even though my platform was somewhat less impressive than John Grisham’s or Jennifer Aniston’s.

After WWN accepted the final manuscript for Bone in December 2019, I discovered that I had more stories to tell about bone. Some topics hadn’t fit in the book. I also found new topics, and readers suggested others.

Feeling ambitious, I started blogging every week, but I soon discovered that each post was very time consuming because I wanted to put bone’s best foot forward. Now, I post every three to four weeks. That is a pace I can sustain and which I hope will not overburden loyal readers.

Today’s post is #105. The most popular posts in 2021 were

Bone or Ivory? A Cautionary Note for Collectors and Gifters (2017)

Serpent slither from the sea, meaning is ambiguous. (2020)

The Versatile Cannon Bone. What Is It? (2018)

Skulls in Fine Art (2018)

The dates in parentheses indicate the year that the article was posted. So you can see that interest in bone is durable. If you find yourself in solitary confinement or trapped on a desert island that happens to have internet connection, you might enjoy scrolling through the archives and reading/rereading some of the other 100 posts.

I could probably continue blogging about nothing other than bone forever, but I have decided to extend my reach and begin including posts on bone’s closest friend: muscle. Many of the upcoming posts, beginning with #106, A Snake’s Breathtaking Embrace, will feature interesting information on both bone and muscle.

WW Norton found my relatively paltry but slowly enlarging platform acceptable because they have agreed to publish Muscle, The Gripping Story of Strength and Movement in June 2023. They now have the final manuscript, and Muscle is in production. (Remarkable to me but characteristic of the industry, a publisher typically requires nine months to turn a manuscript into a finished product.) I will keep you informed as I sign off on jacket design, ask notables to write endorsements for the back cover, and other milestones.

In the meantime, join with me in celebrating About Bone’s fifth birthday. An author’s platform can never be too big, so let your social media contacts know how much fun reading about bone and muscle can be.

Rick Steves signs off with “Keep on traveling.” I say, “Keep on learning.”

Puzzling Skeletal Anatomy

Four facts: I am attracted to activities that many people would consider tedious. I love bones. August was too hot to enjoy being outside. Some friend or foe, I don’t remember who, sent me this.

I accepted the challenge.

As puzzle pros do, I started with the border pieces, each having a black margin and a straight edge. I thought this part would be easy.

But some of the pieces were so fiendishly similar to one another that the left border was longer than the right for several unhappy hours.

The yardstick and the closest possible scrutiny aided getting the vertical borders equal–25 pieces across, 40 pieces up and down, 1000 in total, 21″ x 28″. I used the muffin tray to sort pieces when I thought I could identify pieces’ anatomical region or read the small print on the labels.

The central figure was the easiest because it was outlined in black and had the fewest pieces.

Reading glasses, a magnifying lens, and Jazzy helped reduce frustration.

Once the images and labels were in place, 88 entirely blank pieces remained.

A baking sheet allowed me to scrutinize these final pieces in concert, first from one angle and then another.

TA DA!

What did I (re)learn by assembling the puzzle?

Wrisberg’s ligament is in the knee. The nuchal ligament is continuous with the supraspinus ligament. (I had to google those facts in order to place those pieces properly.)

When a piece includes part or all of the term epicondyle, it could be pointing to any of the 7 knee images or 4 elbow images.

My satisfaction was not greatly diminished when I discovered that one piece was missing, even after searching the vacuum cleaner bag. (For the sake of the above image, I improvised the missing piece.)

What have I learned subsequently?

The puzzle is derived from a wall chart drawn by a Peter Bachin in 1947. The wall charts are available at Amazon in sizes as big as 42″ x 62″, which would be large enough to read the labels without magnification.

Bachin also drew a poster of the muscular system, which for the sake of our dining room décor and my sleep schedule, is not available in puzzle form.

Take-away messages regarding your interest in bones and muscles:

Share your interest on social media.

Keep reading aboutbone.com (soon to be renamed AboutMuscleAndBone.info)

Wait patiently until June 2023 for the publication of Muscle, The Gripping Story of Strength and Movement.

In the meantime, read/reread Bones, Inside and Out

The Incredible Shrinking Bones

Courtesy Aquaimages, Wikimedia

Despite Charles Darwin’s reputation for being a respectful observer and recorder of animal life, he apparently had a “least favorite” list topped by marine iguanas. In great numbers, these lizards populate the Galapagos Islands, which straddle the equator 800 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Darwin visited in 1835 and wrote, “The black lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft), most disgusting, clumsy lizards.” It is “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”  Soon after he continues, “These hideous reptiles may oftentimes be seen on the black rocks, a few feet above the surf, basking in the sun with outstretched legs.” 

Not only was the marine iguana’s appearance offensive to Darwin, so was its behavior. “One day I carried one to a deep pool left by the retiring tide, and threw it in several times as far as I was able. It invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood.”

Darwin, however, limited his disdain. “The meat of these animals when cooked is white, and by those whose stomachs rise above all prejudices, it is relished as very good food.”

In 1959 the Galapagos Islands became an Ecuadorian National Park, so no more iguana tossing or munching, but the lizards have remained intriguing. A group of modern-day ecologists have studied them and discovered an unexpected survival feature—the marine iguanas’ bodies shorten and lengthen repeatedly over years according to el Niño/la Niña climate oscillations.

When times are good and the algae on which they feed is plentiful, the marine iguanas grow longer. When their principal food source is scarce, their bodies shorten by up to 20% of their length. (That is comparable to average height humans losing a foot in stature and then springing back to their baseline height repeatedly according to dietary intake.)  In 2000, the investigators published their results in Nature, a leading scientific journal. They noted that the marine iguanas’ cartilage and fibrous tissue could account for no more than half the shift, which led them to the only plausible conclusion: the bones shrink.

In 2019, another group of ecologists published an article about shrews (mammalian mice-like critters). The scientists reported that from the shrews’ first summer to the end of their first winter, their brain cases (skulls) size shrank by 13% and then enlarged by 10% the following summer. The researchers speculated that this phenomenon saved energy, which allowed the shrews to successfully mate in their second summer.

Across zoology, regulation of skeletal size varies by animal class. Birds and mammals grow to a certain size and then stop. Fish, frogs, and reptiles, however, never completely stop growing. Humans do get shorter in old age because the cushion-like cartilage discs between our vertebrae flatten, but the bones themselves do not shrink.

Shrews and marine iguanas are therefore apparently unique in their ability to change the length of their bones, and for the latter, repeatedly. I say apparently for two reasons. Other animals could possibly do the same but have not yet fallen between the tips of an ecologist’s measuring callipers. More importantly, however, the reported observations fly in the face of what bone biologists know about how bones grow, mature, and age.  

Whereas ecologists include in their queries the interplay of animals and their surroundings, bone biologists scrutinize the cellular and molecular nature of bone formation and maintenance. For a bone to shrink, specialized bone-dissolving cells on its surface would have to remove material. Simultaneously bone-forming cells in the hollow interior would have to add substance, otherwise the bone would disappear. Then when it came time for the bone to enlarge, the opposite inside-outside activity would have to occur. Nobody has observed anything of this sort.

After both groups of ecologists reported their findings, they moved on to other environmental inquiries. Other scientists have not challenged or extended the original findings. This is understandable because the task would be problematic. For laboratory-housed shrews, a careful multidisciplinary analysis would be possible; but because the shrews naturally die during their second summer, they would not afford investigators the opportunity to follow the changes through more than one cycle.   For marine iguanas, the investigation would be herculean. It would require stumbling across rough volcanic boulders far out in the Pacific Ocean, catching, tagging, and measuring hundreds of specimens, drawing their blood for detailed high-tech analyses, studying radiographic images and biopsies of their vertebrae, and then repeating the process at several year intervals over the animals’ nearly 30-year life spans. Complicating the study further, 90% of marine iguanas may die of starvation due to climate oscillations expected over a decades-long study.

10 second video. Watch one walk.

This chasm between what the ecologists know about how environmental changes affect skeletal size and what bone biologists understand about bone formation and growth is deep. The gap highlights an aspirational principle in the design of scientific research—cross-fertilization among specialties brings multiple viewpoints to bear and likely yields deeper insights. For the present conundrum, the ecologists have one set of facts, the bone biologists have another. They should talk. Discovery and control of the involved molecular and cellular mechanisms could hold great promise for preventing and treating both weak and short bones.

Does such research sound intriguing? I think so. I’d be willing to sign on as a cook for the Galapagos expedition; but sorry, Charles, no more iguana stew.


Coming June 2023: a companion book all about muscle

Museum Hopping in Quito

While on my way to the Galapagos Islands, I spent a day museum hopping in Quito. I wanted to learn more about pre-Columbian cultures and, of course, about how native people in the region incorporated repurposed bones into their lives. I had previously hit jackpots visiting North American and European museums and discovered the myriad ways indigenous people have crafted bone into objects of great utility, beauty, or both. In Quito, however, I came away disappointed yet enlightened.

Two archeology museums were tucked away on university campuses and were hard to find. In broken Spanish, I asked a group of students for directions, and one instantly replied, “Would you prefer English?” Several times locals walked blocks with me to ensure that I found my destination. Those experiences by themselves were enlightening.

I visited four museums that housed anthropological artifacts from various pre-Columbian Ecuadorian cultures. Ceramic vessels and figures abounded. There were some examples of metal and beadwork, but alas, a scarcity of bones—an awl here, a funerary urn containing a revered ancestor’s bones there.

After interspersing visits to the Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museum for variety, I finished my museum marathon at the Casa del Alabado Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. It is entirely unassuming from the street, so much so that I obliviously walked past its entrance the first time. But a block later when I realized that I had gone too far, it dawned on me that the Casa was likely the one with the armed guard positioned in the doorway. Inside, the museum was indeed worth protecting. Several tranquil and adjoining courtyards with overlooking balconies were surrounded by room after room of incredibly beautiful ceramic objects, all artfully displayed and carefully lit. In many rooms I was the only visitor, which added to the chapel-like atmosphere.

I found only two items made from bone, a stick pin and a fist-ended flute, likely carved from a human forearm bone.

When I first entered the museum, both youngish people at the front desk immediately distinguished themselves as far more than ticket takers and took pains to show me the detailed guidebook (in English) and explain the layout of the collection. Later, one walked with me so I could point out a piece that I was uncertain about. Was bone or ceramic and what was its purpose? She knew the answers. Then back at the entrance, I commented to them about the abundance of ceramics and the dearth of bone artifacts that I had seen over the day and that this mix differed marked from anthropological collections I had seen on other continents. They had different answers, each was revealing.

One noted that much of the soil in Ecuador is moist and volcanic, i.e., highly acidic, and therefore conducive to dissolving bone. (I had forgotten, but I received the same answer to a similar question in Japan, which is also mostly volcanic in origin.) The other observed that once people perfected the art of turning clay into ceramic, why would they bother working with any lesser crafting material? They also had plenty of fuel to heat their kilns. By contrast, imagine the Inuits trying to fire clay objects with seal blubber.

Overall, it was a great day. If you have an opportunity to visit Quito, plan to see some of the museums, especially the Museo Casa del Alabado. Then step outside and look up. On a clear day, the ice-capped Cotopaxi (19,347 feet) will remind you not to search too hard for old bones in volcanic soil.

World Bicycle Day and Bones

In declaring Friday, June 3, 2022 to be World Bicycle Day, the United Nations states that the recognition “draws attention to the benefits of using the bicycle — a simple, affordable, clean, and environmentally sustainable means of transportation. The bicycle contributes to cleaner air and less congestion and makes education, health care, and other social services more accessible to the most vulnerable populations. A sustainable transport system that promotes economic growth and reduces inequalities while bolstering the fight against climate change is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Worthy goals indeed, but what’s the point of blogging here about bicycles? Well, bones and bikes have more in common than you realize.

Let’s start with the name for one of the original “velocipedes” from the 19th century—the “boneshaker.” It was appropriately named because its all-wood construction was supplemented by iron-ring “tires” encircling the wooden wheels, which would repeatedly jolt the rider while rumbling over cobblestones. Furthermore, consider the construction of each wheel, a firm circumference supported by a lacy interior network of spokes. Together they form a rigid, lightweight assemblage. Nature, however, has been successfully using this design for bone beginning several hundred million years ago. Also, bicycle frame construction quickly evolved from wood to hollow metal tubes, again emulating cylindrical bones. Both are nearly if not completely hollow, rigid, capable of resisting deforming forces from all angles, and lightweight.

Left: A Boneshaker. Middle and Right: Turkey and Human Bones Demonstrating Lacey Interiors

Another connection is that some people are fascinated with the idea of combining bones and bikes. Creative sorts have melded these two interests into some weirdly fascinating rides.

Bonecycles
Bone Tricycles

Although bike-derived exercise is great for both the heart and lungs, unless you ride a boneshaker over cobbles, cycling does not strengthen and sustain bones in the ways that vigorous walking or jogging do. That is because your bone-producing cells must experience mechanical jolting to drive them into a manufacturing frenzy.

So Happy World Bicycle Day. Walk briskly for bone health, cycle for aerobic conditioning, and share the road generously with cyclists when driving, especially if they are riding bonecycles.

Accessories

A Medieval Fashion Foisted Falls and Fractures

The first shoe? Not much of a fashion statement.

Crudely made grass-lined moccasins may have been the first foot protection worn by humans starting as far back as 20 to 40 thousand years ago.

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Fashion pressures eventually prevailed, and shoe design took a great step forward in about 1400. For the next 150 years it was trendy among the European upper classes to wear ornately embroidered shoes with extremely pointed toes, which extended beyond the owner’s foot anywhere from four to twenty inches. These were known as Crakows, which reflected their likely origin from Krakow, Poland. Crakows were high fashion for both men and women and were a key element in demonstrating the owners’ social rank—the longer the toe, the higher the status. At times, a silver or gold chain reaching from knee to shoe tip was used to keep the wearer from tripping. However, this deference to style came with a hidden price. The shoes wedged the toes together unnaturally, which led to bunions and fractures.  

Left: normal alignment Center and Right: laterally deviated big toe

First, what is a bunion? Known in medicalese as hallux valgus, it is a deviation of the big toe (hallux in Latin). Rather than pointing straight ahead, the big toe points toward the outside of the foot. Accompanying the angular deformity is a large bump in the inside of the foot at the base of the big toe. In extreme cases, the big toe angles sufficiently that it overlaps the second or even the third toe. Genetics, variations in alignment of adjacent bones, and muscle imbalance can predispose an individual to hallux valgus, but the most common cause is wearing pointy-tipped shoes that unnaturally scrunch the toes together and push the big toe to the side. In medieval times, Crakows were culprits. Louboutin’s are today.

Next, how do bunions relate to fractures? The big toe contributes greatly to balance and gait, and individuals with hallux valgus have diminished standing stability and increased postural sway compared to those with normally aligned toes. This detrimental influence on gait results in increased risks of falling and breaking bones.

Finally, how do we know that medieval fashionistas had bunions and broken bones? The answer comes from an intriguing study published last year in the International Journal of Paleopathology. In case you are behind in your journal reading, here is the gist of the investigation.

The researchers examined the skeletal remains of 177 adult individuals who had been buried in one of four cemeteries located in or near Cambridge, England. The oldest cemetery was at Cherry Hinton, which was an agricultural center. Burials there started about 950 and continued for 200 years, and the researchers assumed the exhumed skeletons to be those of the local, rural peasants. For the study, the skeletons from Cherry Hinton served as historic controls, since Crakows were not in style when this cemetery was accepting bodies.

Two middle groups were sensibly shod even though they lived when Crakows were the rage. The Hospital of St. John the Evangelist cared for the poor and infirm, so logically its cemetery served the same demographic. The parishioners of All Saints by the Castle were apparently a cross-section of Cambridge social classes, so the church’s cemetery logically represented a similar mix, and Crakows were not likely prevalent.

The fashionistas comprised the fourth group, and they might have even been buried with their Crackows on. Their cemetery was at an Augustinian friary, which was the resting place not only for members of the Augustinian order, who drew criticism for wearing “fashionable tight shoes,” but also for prosperous Cambridgians whose donations secured them preferred burial plots.

Left: normal alignment with the joint at the base of the big toe aligned perpendicular to the long axis of the foot. Right: a tilted joint surface indicates a bunion even if the skeleton is no longer intact.

Using standard anthropological means, the investigators categorized each skeleton according to its age at death and its sex. They next scrutinized the foot bones for telltale signs of bunions. These findings include an angular shift of the joint surface at the big toe’s base along with bony erosions and altered ridging and lipping, which are characteristic findings of chronic joint malalignment. Finally, the researchers examined the entirety of each skeleton for healed fractures.

Data analysis showed that 45% of the friars and 40% of layfolk buried at the friary had bunions, while only 3% of the Cherry Hinton peasants did. The sensibly shod had intermediate incidences of bunions. Furthermore, the investigators discovered that individuals, particularly older folk, with hallux valgus had sustained significantly more broken bones than had individuals with straight toes.

Allowing for some assumptions and circumstantial evidence, the study concludes that wearing Crakows caused wealth-induced bunions, which created gait and balance problems that led to falls and fractures—all recorded in the bones.

Falls and fractures, however, may not have been the cause of the fad’s demise. Rather the English eventually deemed Crakows indecent, and a law prohibited shoe tips longer than two inches. In France, King Charles V ruled against them because Crakows made kneeling for prayer difficult.

For safety, should we revert to grass-lined moccasins or just stick with sensible shoes?


Always a good way to rest your feet. At your favorite bookseller.

Can Turtles Fly?

In the Midwest, where I grew up, April is when box turtles emerge from hibernation deep in the woods and crawl to less secluded areas to perform their summer activities. This transition often requires crossing country roads, and the turtles occasionally cause car accidents as drivers mercifully try to avoid hitting these armored critters.

What’s the nature of their armor? It comes in two major parts. The carapace is the domed upper shell and represents transformed ribs and vertebrae that have spread out and fused together. The plastron forms the flat “belly” and likely developed from an expanded breastbone and possibly from abdominal ribs. Abdominal ribs, known as gastralia, are present in modern-day crocodiles, alligators, and some lizards. Gastralia also strengthened the abdominal walls in many dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex.

Bony plates comprising the carapace (left) and plastron (right) of the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). (Nevada State Museum.)
Apalachiosaurus with gastral basket (abdominal ribs). (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

Covering the tightly interdigitated bony plates that constitute the plastron and carapace are shield-like osteoderms—bony deposits in the skin, from which turtles derive their patterned coloration. Osteoderms are not part of the skeleton but, nonetheless, make themselves available for fossilization and examination millions of years later. Consequently, we not only know about prehistoric turtles and their predecessors but also about armadillos (mammals), past and present, that also tote osteoderms.

Upper left: Osteoderms on Gargoyleosaurus parkinorum, 145 million years old. (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)
Lower left: Osteoderms (and skull) on a modern-day crocodile. (Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Australia)Above:
Upper Right: The giant armadillo, Glyptodon, was 9 feet long and ranged over South American and lower North America, became extinct 11,500 years ago. (Tellus Museum of Science)
Lower Right: The extant nine-banded armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus, is 30 inches long from tip to tail and is found in South, Central, and North America. (Museum of Osteology)

As beautiful and amazing as turtle shells are, they get really interesting when examined from the inside. Only the vertebrae in the neck and tail move on one other, while most of the spine and all the ribs are fused to the inner surface of the shell—a stiff back indeed. What astounds me and until recently has also confounded biologists is that a turtle’s shoulder blades are inside its rib cage rather than outside as they are on all amphibians, other reptiles (including birds), and mammals. Investigators have recently compared the embryologic development of mice, chicks, and turtles. All of these animals start out the same way, but then turtles experience an enfolding of the body wall, and the shoulder blades end up inside.

Cut-away specimens show shoulder blades (arrows) inside the rib cage and the mobile neck and tail bones.  (Above: French National Museum of Natural History. Below: Nevada State Museum.)

Despite the shell’s strength and its unique skeletal anatomy, a turtle typically comes out on the losing end of an encounter with an automobile, but not always. There are two reports of turtles being flipped into the air by a passing car and crashing through the windshield of a following vehicle. In both instances, the startled occupants and the turtles sustained only minor injuries. Way to go, turtle shells. This is yet one more reason to drive carefully.

Here are two more.

Galapagos Tortoise (Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History)
The largest turtle ever, Archelon ischyros, measured 11.5 feet head to tail and became extinct about 66 million years ago. Its spiky plastron is visible through the fenestrated carapace. (Yale Peabody Museum)

Whale Bones, Undergarments, and Valentine’s Day

Think of a bone. The image that usually comes to mind is a hard, white tube with knobby ends. In many instances, that is an accurate perception; but there are major exceptions that make bone even more interesting and valuable, especially for repurposing after the original owner passes on. A great example is a sperm whale’s jaw bone, which may be 25 feet long. Conical teeth the size of drinking glasses stud the forepart and often have been decorated with scrimshaw. Perhaps less well recognized is the multipurpose value of the hind part of the leviathan’s mandible, where it contacts the skull. There it is broad, flat, and thin and has been used for centuries for fabricating objects both functional and aesthetic. Today we might start a similar project using poster board or a sheet of plastic or canvas.

Sperm whale jawbones. Left, Harvard Museum of Natural History. Right, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Vikings were perhaps the first to take advantage of this smooth, durable crafting material and cut the jawbone into dragon-headed trays. Their purpose remains unknown. Speculation suggests that these plaques were food trays or cutting boards or even forms around which to wrap clothing to limit wrinkling. Inuits crafted jawbones into snow knives and used them to trim large blocks of snow that then fit snuggly together to form igloos.

Left: Viking plaque 8.7″ x 7.1″, British Museum. Right: Inuit snow knives, Smithsonian

Nineteenth century whalers were the hands-down champions at repurposing the sperm whales’ jaw bones. On their multiyear voyages, the seafarers had easy access to these bones, which would otherwise be discarded, and they had ample free time on their return trips from the whaling grounds to develop and improve their artistic skills.

In 1843, Joseph Bogart Hersey, third mate on the whaling schooner Esquimaux out of Providencetown, Massachusetts, wrote, “This afternoon we commenced sawing up the large whale’s jaws that we captured in company with [the schooner] Belle Isle on the 14th; the bone proved to be pretty good and yielded several canes, fids, and busks. I employed a part of my time in engrav[ing] or flowering two busks. Being slightly skilled in the art of flowering; that is drawing and painting upon bone; steam boats, flower pots, monuments, balloons, landscapes &c &c &c; I have many demands made upon my generosity, and I do not wish to slight any; I of course work for all.”

Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick (1851), noted, “… in general, they toil with their jack-​knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner’s fancy.”

Left to right: ditty box, work basket, violin, chair, all from New Bedford Whaling Museum. Right: humidor, Pinterest.

The purposes for most of the crafted objects are immediately obvious, but not so for semi-rigid strips that lonely whalers meticulously inscribed and gave to their loved ones on their return home. These were busks, which were inserted into a pocket on the front of nineteenth century corsets to keep undergarments upright and straight. Held close to his loved-one’s heart, the busk also served as a remembrance of love and devotion during the seafarer’s next long absence.

New Bedford Whaling Museum

In modern times, gifts of hand-inscribed busks have morphed into ones of roses and chocolate as expressions of Valentine sentiments. Yet they are not nearly as personal, endearing, or enduring as whalebone busks. Could they make a comeback if corsets again became fashionable?

Happy Valentine’s Day. Please encourage your Valentines and social media contacts to subscribe to www.aboutbone.com

Assorted busks, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Holiday Shopping Guide for Books About Bone

You can never go wrong considering “bone” when choosing holiday gifts for the discerning and hard-to-please. Past December posts have described gifts from the ridiculously economical (Holiday Gift Guide for Frugal Bone Lovers) to the breathtakingly expensive (Extravagant Gifts for Bone Lovers). This year’s recommendations focus on books.

Written in Bone. Hidden Stories in What We Leave Behind. Author Sue Black, 2020.

Sue Black, a British forensic anthropologist and anatomist, starts at the skull and ends 10 chapters later at the toes. She mixes interesting facts about how each of the bones in our skeleton forms and what they can (or cannot) reveal about the lives of the original owners. She makes it clear that forensic pathologists and forensic anthropologists lead grim lives. The former are called on to determine the cause of death that occurred in recent times. The latter are experts in examining remains regardless how old and opine regarding their human vs. non-human origins, sex, age, stature, and diet. The author explains how this is possible and enriches the descriptions with examples from her own worldwide experience. Some of the cases involve fingerprints, hair, teeth, and other non-osseous clues. At first, I was miffed by this apparent diversion from the title, Written in Bone; but when I accepted the title as an eyecatcher, then the subtitle accurately describes the book’s contents. This book is not for the faint of heart. Some of her findings and descriptions are outright grisly and macabre. If you like CSI, however, you fill find Black’s writing informative, engaging, and at times even humorous.

Fossil Men, The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind. Author Kermit Pattison. 2020.

Do your gift recipients take an interest in the study of ancient humans and their predecessors? Would they like to read about scientists’ interpersonal spats mixed in with the dangers and frustrations of Ethiopian tribal warfare and government instability? Would a non-fiction book that at times reads as if it had to be fabricated ring their bell? If so, this book might be a good pick. It recounts the ever-changing and at times infuriating mix of fossils, territory, research money, and Ethiopian governmental bureaucracy when paleoanthropologists were seeking and finding humanoid fossils older than Lucy, dated at 3.2 million years. At times Pattison goes into far more detail describing and comparing the lumps and grooves on individual bones than most general readers can manage, but they can scan these sections and still come away with a respect for the scientists who sweat their summers away in sand pits half way around the world with paintbrush and trowel in hand.         

Bones. Recipes, History, and Lore. Author Jennifer McLagan, 2005.

Can you believe that there is an entire cookbook devoted to bones? Well, at least to the meat with the bones still attached. The author, a professional cook and food writer, makes a strong case that beef, veal, pork, lamb, poultry, fish, and game taste better when cooked on the bone. Unfortunately, we often sacrifice taste, texture, and presentation for the sake of convenience and choose boneless cuts. To remedy these gastronomic oversights, McLagan devotes individual chapters to each source of meat and describes both simple and complex preparations where the intrinsic flavors of the bones greatly enhance the dishes. Does an olive-crusted lamb rack or crown roast of pork sound good? Maple tomato glazed ribs? Coconut chicken curry? Halibut steaks with orange cream sauce? Duck legs with cumin, turnips, and green olives? Roasted marrow bones with parsley salad? The book is peppered with numerous full-color photographs of the final presentations, which makes the work suitable for residence on the coffee table when it is not at work in the kitchen. Should dinner conversation regarding the meal itself finally wane, McLagan salts the book with interesting facts including wishbone lore, fish bone superstitions, and interpretation of bones appearing in dreams. This book is probably not the best gift choice for vegetarians.

Bones, Inside and Out. Author Roy A. Meals, MD. 2020.

For readers who may not want to read a whole book about forensic anthropology, paleoanthropology, or cooking, but who would like broad information about the world’s best building material, this compendium is the obvious choice. The author describes the composition and structure of bone in nontechnical terms and demystifies how bones form, grow, break, and heal. He highlights medical innovations from the first X-rays to advanced operative techniques and the orthopedic giants who developed them. Meals goes on to describe the diverse roles bone has played in in the story of life and human culture, from paleontology and anthropology to religion and literature, including Adam’s rib and Yorick’s skull. Overall, Bones is informative, approachable, and entertaining, and it now available in paperback. Since you have read this far, the author will send a signed bookplate to giftees of your choice. Just click on “contact” in the upper right corner of the web page and indicate the recipients’ names and snail mail addresses. Each plate will arrive in early January so as not to spoil the recipients’ surprise and delight when you give them this treasure during the upcoming holidays. 

Happy Holidays!

A Bone Lover’s Thanksgiving Nightmare

Shortly after spending our first Thanksgiving together nearly 50 years ago, I surprised my wife. It wasn’t that she saw me boiling the denuded turkey carcass, but rather that I ignored the resultant stock and was attempting a skeletal reassembly of the bare bones. My passion for bones has only increased since then, a passion that she begrudgingly accepts, especially every November.

Around Thanksgiving dinner tables everywhere, faces should brighten when bone lovers direct the conversation from politics and sports to the rich cultural history of wishbones. (See previous blog post Twelve No-Fail Conversation Starters Regarding Wishbones.) Should that conversation wane, a discussion of transforming a turkey’s wing bones into trumpet-like turkey callers will undoubtedly rouse diners again from tryptophan lethargy. (See previous blog post It Takes a Turkey to Call a Turkey.)

Consider then the horror of having to endure a boneless Thanksgiving. The modern roots of this nightmare originated in the 1980’s, maybe from the kitchen of Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme. The NFL TV commentator John Madden extolled this unusual preparation’s tasty virtues widely during his Thanksgiving Day football broadcasts. Not only have all the bones except from wings and legs been extracted from the turkey, its floppy remains are then stuffed with a completely deboned duck, which has been previously stuffed with a completely deboned chicken. The combo becomes a “turducken”, a compression of the words turkey duck chicken. Three fowls down, no wishbones to go.

Before I might campaign for an outright ban of such an osseous sacrilege, I decided to know my enemy and try turducken. YouTube videos describe the required ghastly serial deboning and reassembling, which also involves stuffing any interior voids with cornbread and, according to one’s interest in recreating Cajun authenticity, adding some andouille sausage or crayfish. More interested in the result than the process, I turned to Amazon. Over the next two days, my turducken flew from Louisiana to Los Angeles surrounded by dry ice and Styrofoam.

It took three days to thaw in the fridge. I decided to roast the eleven-pound mass on the barbeque rather than in the oven, which might again risk marital harmony. After about 6 hours at 325oF it was approaching the requisite 165oF in the deepest reaches of the chicken, and another 30 minutes with chimera uncovered brought its skin to a golden brown. My wife and I agreed that it smelled good, perhaps partly because it was now two hours after our usual dinner time.

It sliced like a loaf of bread, far easier than carving a conventional turkey, particularly so because I didn’t have to work the knife carefully around any skeleton, including precious wishbones. The turducken tasted good. Each bite was a separate surprise because, somewhat by sight and certainly by taste, the roasting juices had blurred demarcations between the tur, duc, ken, stuffing, and sausage. But I guess that’s the whole point.

Would I do it again? Yes, but only if the fileted bones came along in a separate packet. Then I could sleep blissfully.

Happy Thanksgiving!