by Hugh Gilmore
I’d never held a human skull in my hands until Dr. Alan Mann casually tossed me one in my first physical anthropology lab. I was shocked by his casualness. I knew this skull I held was now the text and tool of my new trade, but it had also once been home to a person’s thoughts and yearnings, hopes and beliefs. I gazed at it in wonder, trying to listen to Dr. Mann (a fine teacher, it turned out), but held by my intense curiosity about the deep, silent gap between myself and the person whose skull I held.
A former English teacher, I had abandoned a department chair position at Abington High School to pursue my desire to know more about human origins. This bright star had been set in my heavens by reading the wonderfully humanistic writings of Loren Eiseley, who taught at Penn in those days. I knew nothing then of future job markets or income potentials or career possibilities. My deepest investment was in my hunger to learn. I knew no subject more worthy of pursuit. Perhaps I hoped that knowledge of humanity’s origins would help me foresee its future. I don’t know.
Along the way at U of P, I became a physical anthropologist who specialized in primate behavior. Here’s how the thinking goes: bones and teeth fossilize and their stories may be read from their structure. But behavior does not fossilize. We may figure how our ancestors’ bones could move, but we’ll never know for sure if they waltzed. Unless, perhaps, we could make some educated (imaginative, really) guesses by looking at living animals who have similar habitats and diets. Given a big push in the 1970s by several popular National Geographic stories about female primatologists (especially Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey), the field of primate behavioral observation in the wild grew quite popular. I paddled out to catch the waves coming from East Africa when I went off to study baboons in Kenya. My specialization in physical anthropology was communication, emphasis on vocalizations. I’d be the man who discovered where the baboon grunt fit in the evolution of human language (nowhere special, it turned out, but for I while I knew more about baboon “speech” than anyone, ever – “Top of the world, Mom!”).
After that, my childhood love of the natural world became my occupation – lucky me. While in Africa I collected lots of animal skulls or teeth, including those of baboons and other monkeys, warthogs, and various antelope or gazelles. Those I shipped home, knowing I’d want to use them as teaching aids some day.
I also asked my former colleague at the University of Michigan, Milford Wolpoff, director of the fossil casting lab, for some teaching samples. He sent several boxes of plaster casts of famous ancestral human skulls, including Neanderthals, “Java man,” Homo erectus, and several Australopithecines (as they were known then). My nice collection served me well. I also kept some on a living room bookcase shelf at child-eye level, hoping to induce a sense of wonder when my sons were growing up and when other children visited.
And then, without much preamble, I was no longer a teacher. My first son had died at 18 and I had responded by, among other things, opening a used book shop here in Chestnut Hill. The skulls were boxed and stored. Never forgotten, but never again used. Life moves on. One always presumes he or she will someday offer a course somewhere in his field of expertise. More time passes. Almost a generation of people come into one’s life, who have no idea you have a by-now-strange body of knowledge in your head. I kept an impala skull mounted over my fireplace mantle, but guests probably assumed it was merely a decorative item. Only I could picture the lovely animal I’d seen dead on the savannah one day and my daily watchful monitoring as I waited for the vultures and then the jackals and then the beetles to reduce it to bone so I could pack it and export it to my home in America.
So, what to do with the other bones and fossil casts? This year, for some unknown reason, I’m “getting things done.” I considered sending them to auction. I thought I might sell them on eBay. But I really didn’t want money for them so much as I wanted them to give someone else joy, and possibly be useful. I got lucky with my first phone call.
Springside Chestnut Hill Academy has the good fortune to have Mr. Scott Stein as its Science Department head. He came over soon after I called. I had arrayed all my items on a display table I’d set up in my carport and crossed my fingers as he walked up my driveway. To my relief, he was thrilled and decided to take everything for the school. His enthusiasm and knowledge were very gratifying to me. He and the other biological science teachers and some lucky students will now have the good fortune to hold those skulls and casts and decipher their stories. Nothing makes the owner of a beloved collection happier than seeing it lifted into the future.
Hugh Gilmore’s most recent book is a novel titled “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour.” He is also the author of two books set in the used book world, “Malcolm’s Wine” and “Scenes from a Bookshop.” All are available through bookstores and Amazon.com in both print and ebook formats.