Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lydia Pyne's "Seven Skeletons"

Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian, interested in the history of science and material culture. She has degrees in history and anthropology and a PhD in history and philosophy of science from Arizona State University. Her field and archival work has ranged from South Africa, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and Iran, as well as the American Southwest.

Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Nautilus, The Appendix, as well as The Public Domain Review; she is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Pyne lives in Austin, where she is an avid rock climber and mountain biker. She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils, and reported the following:
Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils traces the history of seven famous human ancestors, from the moment of their discoveries through their current lives as scientific celebrities.

Seven Skeletons examines how these seven fossils became famous – drawing on sources like archives, photographs, interviews, and scientific publications. These seven include the Neanderthal nicknamed the Old Man, Lucy, the Taung Child, Peking Man, the Piltdown hoax, Flo “the hobbit,” and Sediba; the book shows that these particular fossils have become ambassadors of science with their own unique personas. Seven Skeletons demonstrates that the celebrity of a scientific discovery is utterly contingent upon its historical context.

In order to do this, however, the book weaves together a plethora of small stories – episodes that ultimately add up to the life history of each fossil.

With that in mind, I think that Page 99 of Seven Skeletons is a good example of the book’s overall style. Page 99 is in the middle of the chapter about the Taung Child fossil (discovered in South Africa by Dr. Raymond Dart in 1924) and transitions between two of the fossil’s stories. The top of the page wraps up Dart’s rather unsuccessful trip to London in 1930, where Dart tries to convince the scientific establishment of the fossil’s validity as a human ancestor. The bottom half of the page moves into a story about Dart’s colleague, the larger-than-life paleontologist Robert Broom, who took up the quest to prove the Taung Child’s species (Australopithecus africanus) as ancestral. The page contains one of my favorite juxtapositions about Broom’s character:
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane once described Broom as a man of genius, fit to stand beside George Bernard Shaw, Beethoven, and Titian. Broom’s own biographer, George Findlay, suggested that Broom was about as honest as a good poker player.
Ultimately, the lives of these celebrity fossils, like the Taung Child, are built layer-upon-layer of narrative, shaping how we think about these fossils today.
Visit Lydia Pyne's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Last Lost World.

Writers Read: Lydia Pyne.

--Marshal Zeringue