Bones

University students are taking learning — and fresh animal bones — into their own hands.

On Sept. 21, students in assistant anthropology professor Juliet Brophy’s paleoecology and taphonomy course used found rocks to break open bovine long bones outside the Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex. In the course, students study the processes that affect bones following an animal’s death, Brophy said.

The actualistic study replicated the marrow gathering processes used by hominids in the Stone Age. Students used fresh bones donated by the AgCenter and aged bones from an area farm for the study, striking the rocks with stones until the bones fractured and marrow could be extracted, Brophy said.

Early hominids relied heavily on scavenged meat and marrow’s high caloric value for nutrition, and increased meat and marrow consumption often coincides with the enlargement of the human brain. Studying how the bones were broken apart and what processes were used to extract marrow provides great insight into hominid lifestyles, Brophy said.

The idea for the interactive assignment struck Brophy while she was pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Tennessee. Brophy was studying bone accumulation in South African caves when she realized she needed a method to differentiate the varied fractures and markings on the bones, she said.

Brophy decided to reenact the markings herself. She acquired fresh long bones and used stones to break, crush and scrape the bones in a variety of ways to replicate the fractures and markings on the bones she was studying.

When developing the model for her course, Brophy realized a similar approach would help bring the material to life for her students.

Brophy said several students were skeptical about the project, but each attacked the task with gusto. Brophy directed the students through the process, teaching them about the thick cortical bone that ensheathed the hollow marrow cavity, she said.

Brophy said many of the students were shocked by how strong the bones were and how much effort was required to break them open. It’s a lot of work, even for fit, young college students, and it took some students hundreds of strikes to break open the bone, she said.

The fracture patterns provide insight into how and when the bones were broken. Different stones produce varied strike marks, and fresh bones fracture differently than weathered ones, allowing the students to connect their personal experience to the examples in their textbooks, Brophy said.

The study concluded Monday. Students were responsible for boiling the bone fragments over the weekend, and they reassembled the particles to study the stones’ effects, she said.

Brophy said a hands-on approach is the best way to learn when possible.

“They’re not going to forget that they got to break open bones,” Brophy said. “It makes the whole thing real. It changes it from being something you’re memorizing to something you’re actually understanding.”

Anthropology senior Briana Rauch said the opportunity to get close and personal with bones is what drew her to the course. Rauch said the actualistic study allowed her to assume the mindset of an early hominid and contemplate the process from their perspective.

The next day, the students’ hands were sore and shaking from the work, and writing was nearly impossible, Rauch said. The work was laborious and yielded little returns because of the small amount of marrow available, but the effort was necessary for the hominids’ survival, she said.

The study also allowed the students to think more deeply about issues that would have affected the hominids.

While the dry, aged bones were easier to break open, they also had significantly less marrow content, she said. Rauch said seeing this firsthand pushed students to question the caloric intake differences between the fresh and aged bones, among other questions.

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