the Human Osteology Lab in Macbride Hall, Robert Franciscus
and students compare the proportions of human bones (left)
to those of a chimpanzee. - Photo by Helen Spielbauer
Bob Franciscus has a lot of skeletons in his closet.
More than 1,300 to be exact.
When he joined the faculty of the Department of Anthropology last
fall, he added the Stanford-Meyer collection, originally from Stanford
Universitys School of Medicine, to the 230 human skeletons
already in Macbride Hall. Iowas is now the third-largest documented
collection in the country. The other two are at the Cleveland Museum
of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.
The collection resides in its new home, the recently built 1,030-square-foot
Human Osteology Laboratory that Franciscus helped design. Equipment
includes an X-ray machine, a three-dimensional digitizer, and other
osteometric equipment that can take minute measurements of bone.
The combination of the collection and technology enables Franciscus,
his colleagues, and their students to determine a wealth of information
about historic and prehistoric human life, including how and what
people ate, what kind of work they did, and what diseases and injuries
they suffered from.
"We can glean important information from cultural remainstools,
food refuse, structuresbut a large amount of information can
be learned from skeletonized remains, especially for the more remote
time periods," Franciscus says.
Most of the skeletons in stainless steel trays are from persons
of European descent, born during the middle of the last century.
Franciscus says that because the skeleton collection is documented
(meaning that there is some record of where, when, and how the people
were born, lived, and died) the skeletons represent a more accurate
baseline for studying human evolution than skeletons in either collections
without documentation or archaeological collections. (Native American
remains, now strictly controlled by law, are not usually available
The size of the collection also is important for teaching students
the range of natural variation in human anatomy.
"When students first examine a skeleton, everything looks
new," he says. "They have to look at 20, 30, 100 specimens
before they understand what is normal variability."
I say Neandertal?
The confusion, according to Franciscus, results from a combination
of mispronunciation, scientific rigor, and changes in German
spelling. The first remains of Neandertals were found in 1856
in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. In old German,
thal (pronounced tal) means valley, thus the name
Neanderthals. At the beginning of this century, German orthography
changed, and the th construction was simplified to
t, thus the modern spelling Neandertal. However, many
researchers continue to use the older form either for general
familiarity or to adhere to strict taxonomic rules since the
term Homo neander-thalensis has historical priority.
The documented skeletons in the osteology lab predate skeletons
affected by vitamin-enriched foods, vaccinations, fluoridated water,
and modern health practices, making them more useful for comparison
with the more ancient human fossils that form the core of Franciscuss
The skeletons provide "a window for investigating the evolutionary
history of early humans," he says, especially Neandertals,
and the hotly debated issue of whether or not they have contributed
genes to modern human populations.
"What did premodern humans look like? What are the basic differences
between premodern humans and ourselves?" asks Franciscus, whose
research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and
the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation. These questions have intrigued him
since childhood, when he remembers "being glued to the TV during
National Geographic specials about Louis Leakey and the discovery
of human ancestors."
He sees the same excitement in many students.
"When students learn how much information can be determined
from skeletal remains, you see the absolute fascination and pleasure
on their faces," Franciscus says.
there a Neandertal in your family tree?
Erik Trinkaus, internationally renowned expert on Neandertals,
will give a lecture on the topic, "Latest European discoveries
raise the question, Did Neander-tals and modern humans
share genes?" The lecture will be at 7:30 p.m.,
Oct. 28, in Macbride Auditorium.
"Theres a mix of art and science in learning to infer
things about a persons life from bonesto the untrained,
it seems almost magical."
And the facilities and collection in Macbride Hall enhance the
"You just cant teach osteology out of a textbook,"
Franciscus says. "Not manystudents have access to such a large
collection of remainsits usually only available at a
"Theres no substitute for the real thingreal skeletons,
and lots of them."
by Steve Rosse
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