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October 15, 1999
Volume 37, No. 5


Skeletons in the closet
HRIS team is working out the kinks
Commitment to good writing permeates UI
Adjusting workstations for healthier workers
Dancing in the millennium
Bridges to the next horizon (President Mary Sue Coleman's convocation speech)

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Skeletons in the closet

In the Human Osteology Lab in Macbride Hall, Robert Franciscus and students compare the proportions of human bones (left) to those of a chimpanzee. - Photo by Helen Spielbauer

Bob Franciscus has a lot of skeletons in his closet. More than 1,300 to be exact.

When he joined the faculty of the Department of Anthropology last fall, he added the Stanford-Meyer collection, originally from Stanford University’s School of Medicine, to the 230 human skeletons already in Macbride Hall. Iowa’s is now the third-largest documented collection in the country. The other two are at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.

The collection resides in its new home, the recently built 1,030-square-foot Human Osteology Laboratory that Franciscus helped design. Equipment includes an X-ray machine, a three-dimensional digitizer, and other osteometric equipment that can take minute measurements of bone.

The combination of the collection and technology enables Franciscus, his colleagues, and their students to determine a wealth of information about historic and prehistoric human life, including how and what people ate, what kind of work they did, and what diseases and injuries they suffered from.

"We can glean important information from cultural remains—tools, food refuse, structures—but a large amount of information can be learned from skeletonized remains, especially for the more remote time periods," Franciscus says.

Most of the skeletons in stainless steel trays are from persons of European descent, born during the middle of the last century. Franciscus says that because the skeleton collection is documented (meaning that there is some record of where, when, and how the people were born, lived, and died) the skeletons represent a more accurate baseline for studying human evolution than skeletons in either collections without documentation or archaeological collections. (Native American remains, now strictly controlled by law, are not usually available for research.)

The size of the collection also is important for teaching students the range of natural variation in human anatomy.

"When students first examine a skeleton, everything looks new," he says. "They have to look at 20, 30, 100 specimens before they understand what is normal variability."

You say Neanderthal,
I say Neandertal?

The confusion, according to Franciscus, results from a combination of mispronunciation, scientific rigor, and changes in German spelling. The first remains of Neandertals were found in 1856 in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. In old German, thal (pronounced tal) means valley, thus the name Neanderthals. At the beginning of this century, German orthography changed, and the th construction was simplified to t, thus the modern spelling Neandertal. However, many researchers continue to use the older form either for general familiarity or to adhere to strict taxonomic rules since the term Homo neander-thalensis has historical priority.


The documented skeletons in the osteology lab predate skeletons affected by vitamin-enriched foods, vaccinations, fluoridated water, and modern health practices, making them more useful for comparison with the more ancient human fossils that form the core of Franciscus’s research interests.

The skeletons provide "a window for investigating the evolutionary history of early humans," he says, especially Neandertals, and the hotly debated issue of whether or not they have contributed genes to modern human populations.

"What did premodern humans look like? What are the basic differences between premodern humans and ourselves?" asks Franciscus, whose research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation. These questions have intrigued him since childhood, when he remembers "being glued to the TV during National Geographic specials about Louis Leakey and the discovery of human ancestors."

He sees the same excitement in many students.

"When students learn how much information can be determined from skeletal remains, you see the absolute fascination and pleasure on their faces," Franciscus says.


Is there a Neandertal in your family tree?

Erik Trinkaus, internationally renowned expert on Neandertals, will give a lecture on the topic, "Latest European discoveries raise the question, ‘Did Neander-tals and modern humans share genes?’" The lecture will be at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 28, in Macbride Auditorium.

"There’s a mix of art and science in learning to infer things about a person’s life from bones—to the untrained, it seems almost magical."

And the facilities and collection in Macbride Hall enhance the magic.

"You just can’t teach osteology out of a textbook," Franciscus says. "Not manystudents have access to such a large collection of remains—it’s usually only available at a museum.

"There’s no substitute for the real thing—real skeletons, and lots of them."

Article by Steve Rosse

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