the living and the dead

when i applied to graduate school, i identified myself as a human behavioral ecologist. i was interested primarily in application of evolutionary theory in living populations of humans, though i did study animal behavior quite a bit in undergrad. since coming to michigan, however, various circumstances have brought me to where i am now, in the paleoanthropology lab on the second floor of west hall. i never took a single course in paleo-anything until this year, and got out of my bio anthro requirement in undergrad since i was a bio/anthro double major. and i gotta say, this semester has been…intense. i am not the brightest crayon in the box, but i think i now know how it feels to be the kid who knows the least in all of my classes. i always knew my friends here were smart…and it was a surprise, honestly, that i got into grad school…but this semester has shown me just how much i do not know.

and it is extremely frustrating.

i read article after article, lost in a world of bones that are millions of years old. i hear speculative theory after speculative theory, and it is frustrating when i am used to reading articles and dealing with research that studies living populations, and have sample sizes larger than ten. how is it that you can say, with confidence of any kind, from a tooth and part of a jaw that this organism was a primate, that ate seeds, stood a certain way, climbed trees a certain way, and lived in a house with a white picket fence, with 2.5 children? i know, i’m exaggerating, but it is something i have never, as a scientist, been able to wrap my head around. don’t get me wrong, i think it’s fascinating stuff, and i keep it a secret by acting like i hate school, but…the more i read, the more i want to read. and the reason is, while the theories in the articles rarely make sense to me, or seem like they have relevance in the real world, sitting here in this room, surrounded by the possible remnants of my distant ancestors, it does seem real.

i was sitting in the lab one night, studying for an osteo quiz. i was looking at the different bones of the skull, and eventually at a full skull to compare something or other (who knows). i turned the skull around and stared into where the eyes would have been. and i wondered who this person was. was it a man? a woman? did s/he live around here? or far away? was she a mother, or was he a father? did this person have any friends? what did this person like to do for fun? how did s/he die? was it painful? was it sad? did anyone mourn for this person? i know this seems intense, but we are always surrounded by these bones, these remains of living things, and no one seems to ever think about this – or if anyone does, no one says anything. i remember the first time i picked up a bone – it was a femur – and i totally freaked out and had to put it down. this was part of a living thing – and whether it was a human, a hominid, a hominoid, whatever – it was alive. it was NOT an it…it was a he, a she, a creature once alive and walking this earth. everyone made fun of me for getting upset, but the fact is, i still get freaked out in class, but i’m quieter about it. is it that i just have gotten used to dealing with the dead?

having lost people that were very close to me recently, and sitting in a room filled with the remains of the dead, i often think about alot of things. i wonder, do the other people who work in here ever think about them? they must. how can we not consider what it is we do? the very human, the very tragic quality each of these bones has – it is eerie sometimes, to be here alone. i start to wonder about the end of life, and what lies there. because right now, i am the only person in the room who does not know.

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