Review: Every Bone Tells a Story

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw, published by Charlesbridge (2010). Review copy from publishers.

About: The discoveries of Turkana Boy (Kenya, 1984), Lapedo Child (Portugal, 1998), Kennewick Man (Washington State, 1996) and the Iceman (Italy, 1991) are examined, from discovery to scientific analysis and debate.

The Good: One of the shortlisted books for the 2011 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.  

As the book explains, this isn’t the Indiana Jones version of archaeology; it is the scientific version, of analysis, of tests, of careful study. It does so by examining four different hominin discoveries, organizing it on a timeline of the oldest (Turkana Boy, 1.6 million years) to the Iceman (5,300 years). The discoveries themselves took place at different times, in different locations, and each was significant or unique.

Disclaimer: I find the subject matter of this book fascinating. Learning about the past, discovering what people ate, burial practices, all from bones? How amazing is that? The problem is, I have to be careful when I review or analyze because when I say “great book” is it a great book because of the topic matter or because of the writing?

Every Bone Tells a Story does a great job of using and explaining scientific terms without being confusing, over technical, or entering the technobabble area. Putting it in chronological order also assists the reader in seeing the development and evolution of hominins and scientific theory and what we know about the past.

The Kennewick Man was discovered in the United States on federal land. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which prevents grave robbing and protects Native American people’s rights provides a process. When the remains of the Kennewick Man were dated at 9,000 years NAGPRA was invoked to stop additional testing and to bury his remains. Scientists argued against this for many reasons. As summed up by the authors, “many (but not all) archaeologists fought against reburial because they were alarmed by the number of pricelss bones reburied and destroyed by the earth — knowledge lost. Many (but not all) Native Americans fought for reburial because they were alarmed by the number of sacred bones unearthed and violated — loved ones lost.” Both arguments are compelling and, within the context of the Kennewick Man, additional issues were raised by the age of the remains, claims being made by several tribes, and the initial description of the bones as “Caucasian-like.”

Both Turkana Boy’s and Lapedo Child’s discovery and scientific analysis are shown to be done with respect to scientific principles. While separated in time for when they were discovered, both were discovered and so excavated by scientists who, even if they did not look at the bones as “loved ones,” did look at them with respect and followed scientific procedures that included proper handling of the bones and remains.

The Kennewick Man and the Iceman were both initially discovered by, well, regular people. Ironically for the Kennewick Man, the treatment of his remains that caused me the most unease in terms of mishandling occurred after NAGPRA was invoked. In the case of the Iceman, the treatment of the body (especially when it was initially thought to be “just” another dead body) made me cringe. I appreciated that the authors made their point about treatment of the various bones and remains by showing the readers how these bones were excavated, treated, and used.

Every Bone Tells a Story has plenty of photographs and illustrations, as well as plenty of notes and resources for more reading. This book has plenty of great content and invites the reader to think about scientific and political debates. It’s chock-full of science and is a great example of the types of books so-called “non readers” love to read.

2 thoughts on “Review: Every Bone Tells a Story

  1. Ordering it now…

    An excellent book for children on the topic (Native remains) is BATTLEFIELDS AND BURIAL GROUNDS by Roger C. Echo-Hawk and Walter R. Echo-Hawk. Published in 1994 by Lerner, it is out of print.

    Also see videos about Native activism on this issue. Here’s one:


  2. Debbie, I look forward to your review. And thanks for sharing additional resources with us. I’ll try to track down the Echo-Hawk book.


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