There’s a skull sitting on a desk in the front of the room. Of course there is. It’s a physical anthropology class, we are here to learn about how that skull came to be how it is. It’s got a big A1 written on its forehead, for cataloguing I assume. It’s written sloppily in black sharpie, right there on the bone. Beneath it there is a cut in the bone that doesn’t quite go all the way through. I can’t imagine how it got there. It’s too straight, too clean, and it curves with the bone.
It feels strange to me to be able to stare at this skull, some of its teeth missing, the rest glued into place, but it’s right there. I can touch it, I have touched it. There’s a class down the hall where people are learning to pick up the same skull and tell everyone about it. Its race. Its age. Its sex. Where it lived. When it lived. Who it was. But that’s just the problem. None of those things are ‘who it was.’ It seems ridiculous to try to assign a who to an it. It was beneath flesh and above brain and it was alive some time in some place as part of somebody, but it wasn’t somebody.
I’m a psychology major. I’m used to sitting around, talking about what makes up a person. How all bits of things come together to make up someone. Their race and sex and age and where and when are all a part of that, of course, but there is so much more. There are thoughts and feelings and emotions. There are friends and families and communities. There are religions and illnesses and struggles. This person, now reduced to a skull, lived a whole life before landing in front of a bunch of students half asleep on desks, counting the seconds until they can get to the next part of their day, whether that be a drive to work, or re-caffeination, or a nap.
This person lived and died and is left now, bones and glue and sharpie, nothing. There’s no person left there, and there’s no way to know who ever was.
At one point femurs were passed around the room. Three of them, different lengths, different colors, different people. The professor says something about buying them off eBay from a doctor who worked with indigenous Australians. These bones had context, a story. Somehow they still meant no more to us than that skull.
In the other anthropology class I am in, my professor had us all write about a moment where we knew what it meant to be alive, what it meant to be human. It’s a strange question, but we knew what she was asking. It’s a feeling. Overwhelming and large and infinite that vanishes all too quickly. It feels like knowing purpose, but it isn’t. I wrote about sitting above the Golden Gate Bridge, high in the air, cool and foggy and so close to wonder and so far from everyone. I felt that feeling then, but if you had asked me, in that moment, what it meant to be alive, or what it meant to be human, I still wouldn’t be able to answer. I might shrug and say, ‘this,’ but I wouldn’t know. No one knows. But we all knew of those moments.
I was wondering what the skeleton knew of those moments. I wondered how many he experienced, if any, and where and when and how. I wondered what in his life made him smile and laugh and feel happy. I wondered what made him cry or scream or feel sad. I wondered what he feared most.
My professor showed us a movie about various primates across the world, and the skull sat on the desk the whole time. We watched orangutans help their babies find ripe durians, and Japanese macaques fight for space in hot water, and tarsiers yell out to alert one another of danger before springing back to their homes in tangled tree roots. And while we watched them, the skull watched us.
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