Fish, frogs, snakes, birds, and humans all have spines, which consist of individual vertebral segments that protect our spinal cord while allowing neck and trunk movements. The vertebral column distinguishes “vertebrates” from spineless creatures such as squid, worms, snails, and beetles. Not that we should feel particularly smug about possessing a spine, because the spineless animals don’t have to concern themselves with lumbago, pinched nerves, and chiropractic adjustments.
Excluding sharks, skates, and rays, whose spines are made of cartilage, all other vertebrates have bony spines. Most mammals, giraffes and humans included, have seven vertebrae in their necks, while birds may have more. For instance, owls have 14, which allows them to turn their heads 270 degrees; and those contortionist flamingos have 19. Lower in the spine, the number of vertebrae is even more variable from species to species; and depending on the need for stability over flexibility, multiple segments may be fused together. The human sacrum, for example, consists of five fused segments, and the coccyx has four. Conversely, in snakes, with as many as 500 vertebrae, none of them are fused together. In short, vertebrae are versatile.
The bony ones are also hard, dense, and have complex shapes. The first two features mean that these bones endure a long time after the original owner is finished with them. Their complex shapes fascinate various people, who have re-purposed them in many ways, hence versatile and venerable.
For function, the Inuits hollowed out the cylindrical portion of whale vertebrae to make flues for their rib bone/tundra/hide dwellings. Other cultures have use scooped out vertebral bodies of smaller animals to serve as drinking cups.
Perhaps functional but of questionable esthetic value, vertebra have also morphed into chairs.
Solely for beauty, vertebrae have found second lives in necklaces, bracelets, and brooches.
They have also been crafted into likenesses of John Wesley (1703-1791), a British religious leader and founder of Methodism. It is unclear whether the folk artists were devout Methodists or were detractors who placed the effigies in pubs and soused them in beer to protest Wesley’s call for temperance.
The highest artistic achievement inspired by vertebrae belongs to British sculptor Henry Moore (1889-1986). He is well known for his semi-abstract bronze forms of reclining women, which grace sculpture parks worldwide. These monumental sculptures often have hollow spaces and openings, which some viewers compare to the undulating landscape of Moore’s native Yorkshire; but those observers should look more closely at bone. In 1940 Moore was bombed out of his London home and moved to a farmhouse appropriately named Hoglands because it was situated on a former pig farm. On walks, Moore would pick up scattered bones and take them into his studio. He commented that his primary interest was the human figure but that he paid great attention to natural forms, including bones, pebbles, and shells. It is apparent that he studied vertebrae closely and was taken by their rounded openings and curved, merging surfaces. They inspired him to create his shapes, iconic in their own right, and referencing beautiful, timeless bone.