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3: Osteology

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    Osteology is the study of bones. Osteology is important to studying human variation, and primatology. Paleoanthropology relies on osteology because most fossils come from bones. Forensic anthropology uses osteology to solve crimes. Like most other physical traits, the bones we see are a consequence of genes and environment. There is nothing particularly profound about bones compared to other biological systems, but their durability makes them special for anthropology because they are the main source of data for paleoanthropologists, important to archaeology, and before DNA testing, they were important to the study of human variation.

    We tend to think of bones as dead, dry, and brittle, and when you leave them out in the sun for a few years they do get old. Their hardness comes from a calcium-based crystal structure of hydroxyapatite (\(\ce{Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2}\)), which interconnects like columns of Lego blocks.

    In a biology class you tend to think of a bone as a living organ, like your heart or your lungs, but in anthropology we are used to looking at dead bones, outside of the body, when they are just shells of the functions they had when they supported living organisms.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) - Bone Growth rozwój kos´ci


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) - By OpenStax College - Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site.

    Genetics determines most of what your bones look like, for example, your 23rd chromosomes determine several shapes that are commonly used to say whether someone looks male or female, and when forensic anthropologists use these differences to identify skeletons.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) - By CNX OpenStax [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    However, like the rest of your body, the environment also effects your physical structures. The muscle attachments on your bones suggest your activities during your life, and stress, i.e. malnutrition, can be read in cross-sections of your teeth like tree rings. It's important that we have a basic shared vocabulary so that we can compare humans to other vertebrates, to evaluate fossils, and to understand several aspects of human variation. Learn the bones of the human skeleton below:


    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) - Mariana Ruiz Villarreal, 2007

    Make sure to learn the scientific name!

    Common Name Scientific Name
    skull cranium
    jawbone mandible
    collarbone clavicle
    shoulder blade scapula
    breast bone sternum
    funny bone humerus
    spine vertebrae
    hip(s) pelvis
    wrist carpals
    thigh bone femur
    kneecap patella
    shin bone tibia
    ankle tarsals

    Here's an online practice quiz with more detail then you need for this class, but good to know if you're going on in anything health related.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Skim animal skeletons

    Skim Primate Skeletons and More Primate Skeletons


    • carpals
    • cervical vertebrae
    • clavicle
    • coccyx
    • cranium
    • epiphyseal
    • femur
    • fibula
    • frontal bone
    • humerus
    • hyoid
    • lumbar vertebrae
    • mandible
    • manubrium
    • metacarpals
    • metatarsals
    • occipital bone
    • parietal bone
    • patella
    • pelvic girdle
    • periosteum
    • phalanges
    • phalanges
    • radius
    • ribs
    • sacrum
    • scapula
    • sternum
    • tarsals
    • temporal bone
    • thoracic vertebrae
    • tibia
    • ulna

    Imagination Questions

    • Go to Balboa Park and visit the San Diego Natural History museum, it's free with a resident ID on the first Tuesday of the month. How are we constrained by our skeleton?
    • Compare and contrast primate anatomy. Why is it different? Why is it the same?

    Thumbnail: Catacombs of Paris. Image taken in October 2007. (Djtox).

    This page titled 3: Osteology is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Arnie Daniel Schoenberg via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.