“Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death” by Brenna Hassett (Bloomsbury, 2017)


No two anthropological books are alike: they may discuss the various species of hominid and how Homo sapiens has adapted and evolved over time, but each anthropologist has her or his own point of view and angle, with prevailing theories and their own evidence to back it up. Built on Bones is the fascinating story of the history of humanity from nomadic hunters, to sedentary farmers, to village dwellers, and eventually city inhabitants as told through the bones of the dead.

Bones tell a story: from the marks and scorings on them, to what shape the entire bone in, to what the skeleton is like, what position and shape it is in, to whether it’s alone or part of a group. Teeth are little gems of wisdom, as unlike other bones, they remain relatively unchanged throughout our lives, once the adult teeth come in. Each angle of wear and tear, the cuts and grooves, the degradation in certain areas all come together to tell the type of life the tooth owner had.

Bioarcheologist Brenna Hassett, drawing on her own fieldwork in Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean, constantly citing first-hand evidence and experience, reveals some incredible findings about humanity over time as it made the change to farmer and the move into hamlets, towns and eventually cities, and what a toll this has had on the human skeleton. Fascinating insights are offered, like hunters and gathers having larger periods of time between offspring because it was harder to carry more than one child of a young age and be nomadic. What effect starting to live close to animals had, as well as being in close proximity to large groups of people, covering the subjects of plague and disease.

Built on Bones ends on an interesting question: was it worth it? How much has humanity sacrificed in coming together to form these towns and cities? There are many points for and against, but only the reader, by the end of the book, will be able to make a truly informed opinion.

Originally written on July 23, 2017 ©Alex C. Telander.

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