The simplest way to put it is that osteology is the study of skeletal anatomy, whether it be specific to the human skeletal anatomy or any other animal’s skeletal system. It deals in anything having to do with bones: structure, function, growth, pathology, decay, trauma and healing, individual bones, the evolution of bones, et cetera. That means that, while it really is a subset of the overall study of anatomy, osteology really can be considered a subfield of many disciplines, depending on why you’re studying it.
Osteology can be considered a subfield of anthropology, if one is studying the human (as well as nonhuman primate and/or hominid) skeleton for the purposes of archaeology or palaeoanthropology. I plan to go into bioarchaeology and am very interested in how the health and nutrition of an individual is detailed in their bones, so I should be quite comfortable with the human musculoskeletal system. I need to know how to determine other factors like age, growth as they aged, and any history of disease or trauma to the bones. I will also need to know how to re-articulate (or, put back together) a skeleton, because bones can get quite jumbled up over time, especially when they’re just hanging out underground.
In forensic science and bioarchaeology, it is important to look at human remains with both the naked eye and under the microscope in order to determine things like biological sex (not gender, though that can be inferred through a variety of ways), age, cause of death, and how old the bones themselves are.
Human skeletons are studied for the medical practice of orthopedics, which is the basically osteology in action with live patients. An orthopedic surgeon deals with a wide range of things, from knee arthroplasty (replacement) to congenital bone disorders like osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease).
Osteology is studied for a variety of things, like archaeology, forensic science, and medicine, but it’s also studied for things like biophysics, fine arts (for drawing human and animal forms), osteopathy, kinesiology, massage therapy, evolutionary biology, developmental biology, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s a study with a multitude of applications.
The stapes (stirrup) is the smallest and lightest bone in the body. The stapes is the connection between the middle and inner ears. The head of the stapes connects to the incus and the footplate rest within the oval window of the cochlea. It is the third ossicle of the middle ear and part of the auditory system that transduces sound energy into mechanical energy and finally, electrical energy.
First of two for an anatomy assignment.
Leonardo da Vinci | The Mechanics of Man
An illustration of the skeleton system based on Mansur’s Anatomy in the canon of Avicenna
I was sick this weekend. The kind of sick where your nose runs so much that you begin to question how the human body can produce so much mucus. My throat hurt. I was coughing. But the worst part was the headache: My head felt like it was being continuously squeezed by a vise, or maybe some sort of medieval torture device. The pain was so bad even my teeth hurt. As I was lying in bed next to my half-empty box of Kleenex, I thought, “This wouldn’t be happening if we had descended from Asian, not African, apes.” (Yes, I was really thinking that.)
But before I explain what apes have to do with my cold, let’s cover some basic biology. When the cold virus (or bacteria or an allergen like ragweed) enters the body, the nose produces mucus to prevent an infection from spreading to the lungs. This results in a runny nose. All of the extra snot can also plug up passages that connect the nose to air-filled pockets in the bones of the skull, called sinuses. Sinuses produce their own mucus and are thought to help humidify air, as well as stabilize and strengthen the skull. But when the passageways between the head’s sinuses and nasal cavity get blocked, the sinuses’ mucus can’t drain and the air pockets fill, causing pressure to build . Sometimes the lining of the sinuses swell, which results in the further production of mucus and build-up of pressure. That pressure hurts.
Humans have four types of sinuses that play a role in sinus headaches: the frontal sinus in the forehead, the maxillary sinus in the cheeks, the ethmoid sinus between the eyes and the sphenoid sinus behind the nose. The African apes, gorillas and chimpanzees, have all four of these sinuses. The Asian apes, orangutans and gibbons (the so-called lesser apes because of their smaller size), have just two, lacking the ethmoid and frontal sinuses.
The ethmoid and frontal sinuses can be traced back at least 33 million years ago to a primate called Aegyptopithecus that lived in Africa before the ape and Old World monkey lineages originated. (Old World monkeys are those that live in Africa and Asia.) These sinuses have also been found in some of the earliest known apes, such as the roughly 20-million-year-old Morotopithecus and 18-million-year-old Afropithecus, both from Africa. Chimpanzees, gorillas and humans inherited these sinuses from the most ancient apes. Gibbons and orangutans, however, each lost these sinuses independently after they diverged from the rest of the apes; gibbons evolved about 18 million years ago while orangutans split from the other great apes roughly 15 million years ago.
It’s not clear why the Asian apes lost the ethmoid and frontal sinuses. In the case of the orangutan, the animal has a much more narrow space between its eyes and a more severely sloped, concave forehead than the African great apes. So there just may not be room for these air pockets to form.
But gibbons and orangutans do still have the maxillary and sphenoid sinuses, which are enough to cause annoying pain and headaches. So I should really apologize to my African ape ancestors. Clearly, I had some misdirected anger. I should have been mad at the virus that invaded my body.
Most of you have probably come across this at one time or another, but this site is awesome. It’s an interactive anatomy tool that allows students to examine the skeletal antomy of a variety of primate species, including humans, from the University of Texas, Austin. The start page has information on each species. Clicking on a species that interests you take you to a interactive skeleton that allows you to see multiple views of any particular bone. There is also a comparative anatomy section that allows you to do just that, and a taxanomic tree.
I’m waiting pretty eagerly for their sister site, eFossils, to get up and running. The university I’m with at the moment as a pretty limited range of fossil hominin casts. :/
Three of My Work in Progress Cranium Sketches & Why Scientific Illustration is the Cat’s Pajamas:
Drawing skulls is cliché, I know. However, I’m in the process of writing about the evolution of a suite of integrated cranial bones in modern humans and several fossil hominin taxa. The fact is I find that sketching the anatomy of what I study helps me to better understand it. It makes me think about, for example:
- areas of rugosity and thus where muscles originate and insert and their purposes;
- aspects of anatomy that I’m wont to forget like occlusal surfaces because in order for teeth to look realistic, I may have to show a hint of them in my drawing;
- where sutures meet and thus aspects of pre- and postnatal ontogeny;
- often forgotten foramina, the size, number and location of which may be diagnostic of taxon;
- how prognathic a feature is and its diagnostic relevance for sexing or taxonomy;
- canal size and location and where non-fossilising aspects of the cranium are innervated;
- anomalies that are diagnostic of several pathologies and thus I have to think about which they result from;
- why certain morphological aspects of the human cranium (or any bone for that matter) are the way they are and whether they are derived or primitive.
Scientific illustration can be an elegant means of imparting knowledge, and when true to the empirical evidence, it is of great instructional utility both to those who commission drawings and to those who examine and learn from them. However, scientific illustration can also be incredibly helpful to those who do the drawing. There’s a reason osteology students spend hours sketching bones. To pay refined attention to a bone in order to accurately portray it means you subsequently pay attention to consistencies and anomalies between and within specimens. With enough time, specimens and patience you can develop not only improved drawing skills but improved observational skills, improved diagnostic skills and a wider mental catalogue of anatomy and its many variations. Drawing is a learning tool as well as a pleasurable past time.
Anatomie du gladiateur combattant, applicable aux beaux arts…
Jean-Galbert Salvage (1770-1813)
A military doctor of the Napoleonic era, Salvage based his drawings on dissections of soldiers “killed in duels, in their prime.” For this study of the Borghese Gladiator, an ancient Greek statue, he arranged his cadavers in the same pose as the sculpture and meticulously worked out the skeletal and muscular anatomy. Anatomical studies of important classical sculptures constituted a genre within fine art.
Paris, 1812. Two-layer copperplate engraving, color.
Body Worlds does have it’s own donor program, which can be explored here. They’re not accepting applications, presumably because they’re not in need of remains right now.
The issues surrounding BODIES: The Exhibition are similar to that of Body Worlds, although the former is not associated with the latter. I must also amend that I neglected to include Kyrgyzstan with China in the list of places where human remains have allegedly been acquired with a lack of consent. Infants and fetuses are acquired by institutions donating from collections they already possess. There was a controversy with Body Worlds a few years ago, where around seven bodies were supposedly acquired from China; von Hagens said he didn’t know ~where the bodies came from~ (which is plausible due to the scale of his Body Worlds project, but it also a serious lack of bioethical consideration) and returned them to China. The thing is, von Hagens doesn’t hold much merit in scientific circles much anymore, because of general concerns for his exhibits and incredulousness of that case.
Inappropriate poses aside, problematic issues continue with the Body Worlds exhibit specifically, wherein its status as an art collection means it isn’t subject to the same kind of disease control and licensing scrutiny when moving between countries as would a medical, botanical, or zoological collections of specimen. That means that the issuing of proven informed consent from the deceased or next of kin might not be necessary, as well as screening for disease control reasons. Various parts of the Czech Republic, the UK, and some US states have been cracking down on the exhibit because of this, and the links I’ve provided are articles and written law requiring proper documentation before the exhibit can open. This means there are a great deal of people who are giving their consent to be showcased. I’m uncertain as to whether they get a say in how they’ll be posed.
This is a super convoluted case and it comes with a lot of questions marks, which right away is a red flag when you’re considering the nature of the Body Worlds exhibit. Historically, the lack of consent for medical and scientific research is disturbing, and while it might frustrate researchers sometimes, it’s still something that needs to be constantly addressed and upheld. Body Worlds and similar exhibits could cause controversy while divorced from all that because of the plastination process and ~ew dead people~ and ~don’t remind me that I’m going to die~. It calls to mind the unethical biomedical history because there are so many related issues about it. And this is just one in a plethora of related issues (ie. gendering between posed remains, whether remains should be publicly exhibited in the first place, and general ethics for the treatment of human remains in scientific, medical, and bioarchaeological research).
Here is some creepy stuff about von Hagens parsing consent between the usages of remains: “…Dr. Gunther von Hagens made a distinction between clinical anatomy and public anatomy, between the use of bodies without consent common in clinical anatomy for the training of medical students, and the ethical imperative for informed legal consent in the case of plastination and eventually public anatomical exhibitions.” [X] Because obviously how remains are utilized is the only concern.
tl;dr- Body Worlds and related exhibits are fascinating and meant for educational purposes, but have been riddled with legitimate ethical concerns from the beginning.