Whose Bones Are These? Investigating A Classroom Skeleton

Whose Bones Are These? Investigating A Classroom Skeleton

There’s an old skeleton hanging in the art room of this high school in Erie, Pa. It isn’t plastic.
It’s made of real bones that belonged to a real person. But no one knows who that person was. Not the art teacher, Mrs. Leasure. “I have no idea where he came from. 
It could have been here for 100 years.” Not the principal, Mr. Vieira. “The lore is that it came from the Ganges.” “We consistently hear that it’s male based
on the bone structure.” And not my friend Elissa Nadworny. She went to school here
and now she works with me at NPR. When I found out my school had a human skeleton, I wanted to find out everything I could about it. So here at Skunk Bear we decided to see what science
could tell us about these bones On TV they always start with one thing: “Her DNA” “DNA” “DNA sample” “DNA” So we took the skeleton to a DNA expert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Dr. Logan Kistler and asked, “Can you get DNA from an old skeleton?” “It’s probably going to take four to six weeks
of lab work and analysis, might cost up to about $5,000.” OK, so no DNA analysis. We needed to find someone who could tell us something by just looking at the bones. So we went back to Erie – to Mercyhurst University where we met Dennis Dirkmaat. He reads bones for a living, working with law enforcement to identify remains associated with crimes. There’s a lot of information to be told from the skeleton. He called in some colleagues to measure every
inch of our skeleton. First up – is this skeleton a man like everyone thinks? “We usually start with the pelvis.” Females have broader pelvises to make childbirth easier. But this pelvis is kind of hard to interpret – it’s somewhere in the middle. But there are more clues in other parts of the body. A very clear marker is the mastoid process. That’s the bony bump where the jaw muscles
attach to the skull. Men have bigger jaw muscles so they have bigger
bumps than women. And this skeleton has a small bump. And there are other clues too: the shape of the eye sockets the brow ridges the curve at the back of the skull All the features here indicate that this is female. When we walked in here we thought for sure this guy, this is a male. OK …. next …. was she young or old? To get an age, Dirkmaat’s team looked at places where the skeleton’s bones had fused. See … we’re born with about 300 separate bones. but around the time we hit 40 we only have 206. That’s because at specific times in our lives
certain bones fuse together. Two plates at the front of the skull fuse
in our first year. Our upper arm bone fuses in our teens. And then there’s the clavicle. There’s a little line there that tells us that it’s in the process of fusing. This is probably somebody 20 to 30 probably mid-20s. Wow. I wasn’t expecting it to be that young. Next, her height. Dirkmaat’s team took a few bone measurements and used them to calculate how tall she was. This one came out just a little above 5 feet. ADAM: How tall are you? ELISSA: I’m 5-3. ADAM: This is sort of like almost you ELISSA: I know it’s really freaking me out. The other aspect of the big four in our biological profile is the ancestry. Dirkmaat’s team compared her head measurements
to a digitized database of skulls from around the world. And another surprise – the computer program says this skull looks most like a Japanese female. But there’s a lot of uncertainty here. And the most Dirkmaat will say is: “It’s probably Asian.” So we’re starting to build a life story. This is a young woman who has Asian ancestry. So the next question is where is she from? Did she grow up near Erie where we found her?
Or could she have lived in Japan? OR … near the Ganges like the principal heard? Well I did some research and it turns out
that a lot of skeletons in medical schools, art schools and high schools actually came from India. There was a shady – but legal – trade in human
remains between India and the West that started in the 1800s. So can we tell if this skeleton got here as
part of that bone trade? These bones probably hold more clues. They’re just hidden, deep down, in their very atoms. So we sent off a very tiny piece of bone to a geochemistry lab to see what they could
tell us. “Hello this is Doug Kennett calling from Penn State.” “Hello!” “Hey Doug.” Kennett is the guy who got our sample, dunked it in acid, burned it into a gas and sorted its molecules in this giant machine. Believe it or not, that gave us a clue about where she came from … by telling us what she ate. This is sort of an old adage that you are what you eat. If you live where they eat a lot of stuff made from corn, like in Pennsylvania, your bones have one chemical signature. No corn, but a certain mix of land plants and animals, like you’d find in continental Asia, a different signature. And if you eat a lot of seafood, like you
probably would in Japan, different again. So … what did the bones tell us? This woman’s diet looked like this. “Probably not an island or a coastal environment, so certainly consistent with someone living
in India, Pakistan, Central Eurasia.” So she could have come from the Ganges region. And she could have been transported to the
U.S. via this bone trade but only if the dates line up. Did she die when this bone trade was happening? Kennett’s first step was to look for
a chemical time stamp. Back in the 1950s nuclear testing flooded
the world with huge amounts of radioactive carbon. “We call it a bomb spike in the atmosphere.” And anyone who lived through it, or was born
after it, has lots of that radiocarbon in their bones. But in our sample, Kennett didn’t find this marker. So we can say definitively that this person
did not live after 1955. But he was able to read more subtle markers to figure out when she did live. The most likely interval that this individual
lived was between 1875 and 1920. So it kind of fits right in that timeline that these skeletons would be coming to the U.S. And it’s so weird to think that like at
the beginning of this process, it was basically a pile of bones on a string. And then the more you learn about it, it becomes this real person. All this new information just underlines
a bunch of really tricky questions. Should skeletons like these be used
in classrooms at all? And if not, how should we lay them to rest? No lab test can tell us what any of these people believed in or what they would have wanted.

80 Replies to “Whose Bones Are These? Investigating A Classroom Skeleton”

  1. Very interesting point at the end. "No one really knows what these people wanted". Or I might add if they were taken against there will?
    Who knows what the truth of the origins really were but none the less very interesting Skunk Bear vid.

  2. I was expecting a facial reconstruction, like they did with Otzi -> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi

  3. Watch and see how this relates to this NPR topic
    " Death in Paradise: Season 1 Episode: 3 "
    Richard is inclined to believe the death of a voodoo priestess is murder when she dies in the island's local school just hours after predicting her own death. Richard learns of an affair that took place years earlier in the school leading to the disappearance of a woman, and believes that the victim has a connection to the missing woman. He turns his attention to Nicholas, the prime suspect and Fidel's old principal, who was involved in the disappearance of the woman, but Nicholas has an alibi, leading Richard to question whether he is being set up or not.

  4. I'd love for my bones to go to a classroom. Even to have a photo of me with them, so that students could see how bone structure effects things like facial appearance. I'm already in the process of leaving my body to the UK's first forensic decomposition farm if and when it ever gets approved.

  5. Awesome video! We also have a lot of skeletons in our anatomy department, and yeah the story goes that all of them were from India during the bone trade period.

  6. I teach at an old high school too. We have one of these and a skull. I never thought about where it came from, but they always gave me chills

  7. I thought these classroom skeletons were just random bones from various individuals, not necessarily all from the same person

  8. Extremely fascinating stuff! Takes the things we always wondered about every day things we see and shows then in a whole new light!

  9. A bit more background about the bone trade mentioned in this video. It began in colonial times when British doctors hired thieves to steal skeletons from Indian graveyards. Ever since, there's been a steady stream of skeletons exported from the Kolkata. It's very unlikely the people who these bones belonged to had any say in the matter. The bone trade became officially illegal in 1986, but it still continues. More here: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16678816

  10. The pelvis has obviously been badly damaged over the years, and poorly reconstructed. If we look just at individual features (See ~ 8 seconds in) we see that the individual pelvic bones are female. As example, the arch of the sacrum is modest compared to that of a male. Also, if the ilium were properly angled to articulate with the sacrum we would see that the over all orientation of the pelvis would be more forward- again female. If you look a the sciatic notch, it is broad and this is a female trait.

  11. I thought this would be a really stupid video, turned out to be one of the most educational video I've seen in a while!

  12. As a retired Biology teacher, i can tell you that the skeleton in our lab was real, purchased from a well known biological supply company and the source was India. My students were told it was real and to respect it as the dead remains of a real person.

  13. Very interesting investigation. It is also the way we used to find answers or conclusions based on evidences that we collected as many as we can.

  14. Any chance you would consider having an expert reconstruct the face to show us a image of this person, and have NPR or start a kickstarter to complete the DNA test? It would be a neat follow-up in the future.

  15. Wow, my high school has at least one human skeleton, and I heard that it was from a Vietnamese woman. Amazing.

  16. ¿What if there was a way to keep respects to a body while this one is also being used for science and learning?

  17. Lol if I die young, I want to donate my skeleton to a university. Another female Asian skeleton to the collection.

  18. In my opinion a real skeleton can teach u way more than plastic, like how u demonstrated here. Unless the relative of the skeleton is found it should be allowed to teach th future generationa bout our biology.

  19. So you’re telling me one day my bones could end up in a classroom with children and teachers touching me. I’m in shock

  20. It doesn't matter what they would have wanted, because they're dead, and they are incapable of wanting or not wanting anything at all. Respect for the dead is only courtesy of the living relatives who may hold some emotional value for the bodies. I don't give a slightest fuck about what happens to my corpse.

  21. hmm… I don't get why a legal trade would be shady. I mean it's legal so what's there to be used against you? you don't even know what happened to those guys so it's not your fault if you get a guy that's been freshly killed just to complete the trade.

  22. Who is this narrator? Did they grow this fool in a lab? How perfectly nerdy and commercially youtube he is. I want to know his educational back round. What upbringing or what college trains people to sell out this hard? How will he spend his youtube fortune? I fucking hate this guy. I dont like his smug fucking face. Bitch. I really need this dude to end up having a severe cocaine addiction, and ruining his life only to find new life and redemption in group therapy…. Only to relapse and kill his wife. I need a never ending loop of destruction for this smug fuck. I dig the info…. I haaaate the person giving it. Tell him to quit smiling its soooo friggin weird.

  23. They should be used if the person voluntarily donated themselves for that purpose. Otherwise a proper burial is in order.

  24. Where are the libtards? I bet they're freaking out right now.

    "there's no such thing and genders, there's no such thing as race. Men and women are all the same! Muh social construct! Herrr durrrr! ".


  25. those remains should be buried respectively in its home land with its identity (if possible)
    Would you like people from the future study your remains?

  26. i thoroughly enjoyed this video. She's probably from my country who died somewhere around when the great revolt of 1857 happened. Thats deep.

  27. “Now kids, Jared was speaking in the middle of class, so we had to put his corpse up for display. Don’t speak in the middle of class if you don’t want to end up like Jared.”

  28. It is really admirable and priceless when the people donate their bodies for scientific purposes, but is a SHAME and very disrespectful when the person never agrees in their lifetime, then their reminds are taken without their consent, and that happened in the past.

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