The Bones of Bioarchaeology

Book review: Built on Bones, by Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett is a bioarchaeologist. If, like me, you have no idea what that is, it means she studies human bones and remains, such as teeth found in archaeological sites, looking for clues to understanding more about human existence and how it’s evolved through the ages.

Her book focuses especially on cities, or our earliest iterations of urban developments, asking at the beginning:

If cities are so great, why are they full of things that kill us? Urban life serves up a terrifying cocktail of the most dangerous things known to our species – disease, inequality and, of course, other people. It’s not unreasonable to ask: why have we made cities this way?

This hooks you, because it’s a valid question that I think has crossed the mind of anyone who’s been crammed on an overfull subway car at rush hour, stopped in a tunnel without a quiver of forward momentum, silently pleading with whatever god you believe in to get you home to an overpriced outer-borough apartment that eats up well over 50% of your income where you can eat an off-brand microwave dinner and fall asleep to the sound of your neighbor’s TV through paper-thin walls while some breed of insect takes over your apartment in the night, regardless of your cleaning aptitude. Why do we do it? Why does anyone put themselves through an existence like this?

… If we look at the lives and deaths of people through all the different experimental stages of urban life, we can start to see some very interesting patterns in these urban pioneers…It’s through the skeletal remains of the city dwellers of the past that the question this book asks can be answered, and it matters to everyone alive today: why have cities made us this way?

Factors she examines include our domestication and use of animals, treatment and societal position of women and children, diet and nutrition habits and patterns, and susceptibility to illnesses, especially those that thrive in crowded conditions.

The absolute highlight of the book is Hassett’s sense of humor, which she employs to great effect alongside her scientific observations and analyses. Here she introduces a chapter on the importance of major historical illnesses for her work and research: Like many bioarchaeologists, I have a fondness for plagues.”

So she’s always able to grab your attention and draw it to whatever subject she’s interpreting. At the same time, she’s intelligently able to distill the bones of her work into helpful explanations for the lay reader. From the same example of why bioarchaeology needs a good plague every now and then:

“Calamities such as plague that knock everyone into the grave with one indiscriminate sweep are one of the few chances bioarchaeologists have to overcome something known as the Osteological Paradox, a term coined by researcher James Wood and colleagues to cover the very awkward point that, in studying past lives, the evidence bioarchaeologists actually have to go on are past deaths. Without access to modern medical care, the greatest potential for mortality comes in old age and in infancy and early childhood. Death is less of a risk for adolescents and reproductive-age adults, until something comes along to level those odds.”

Interesting. That wouldn’t really have occurred to me. She also has a witty way to condense some of the anthropological quirks of modern life: “Humans have manipulated thousands of years of animal evolution to make a tastier chicken, a milkier cow and a wolf you can let play with your children.”

The subject matter does have some potential for dryness when unaccompanied by a sufficient amount of her tongue-in-cheek observations and hilarious footnotes, but luckily they’re frequent. Her writing is geared toward the layperson who’s interested in questions of why we gravitate to cities and what they do to us, so there’s no prior insider knowledge of her scientific field necessary.

All the same, I did lose interest here and there. She’s a gifted writer and her subject is undeniably interesting, but I felt the cases explored sometimes strayed from the original questions I wanted answers to. Although I learned a lot, far more from this book than I did in a Physical Anthropology course in college, my attention wandered and I didn’t think some questions were ever satisfactorily answered.

She admits to about as much herself. That doesn’t mean the attempt to answer them isn’t both educational and wildly entertaining. As she puts it: I’ve suggested that history is a liar and bioarchaeology a more devoted servant of the truth, but the reality is that we can only investigate what we can find.”

But what she has found, especially coupled with her self-deprecating yet charming narrative voice makes for an intriguing read.

Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death
by Brenna Hassett

published May 2, 2017 by Bloomsbury Sigma (Bloomsbury USA)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for review.

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