Them Dry Bones

April 8, 2020

Once, not long after I’d come here, I was on a trail in the hills behind my home when I heard an odd sound, like a soft croaking or grinding. I suddenly came upon thirty or more xopilotes (sop-ill-OH-tezblack vultures) feasting on the carcase of an animal that had fallen and died. They often make that noise, I learned over time, even if they’re not eating.

I approached to see more clearly when they all rose up at once, scaring me that they might attack. But they’re shy of humans, so seeing me they simply rose up, in an amazing swoosh of wing-power, and dispersed till I’d inspected the bones of the cow or horse, and had walked on myself.

Large livestock wander freely here, finding grazing in the hillside valleys or in nearly forgotten meadows. As I’ve said before, I can’t understand how farmers locate their animals when they need them, but obviously the system works. A group of cattle is too valuable an asset to simply abandon, although they are physical hazards for an incautious hoof on the steeper hillsides, and those occasionally claim a life.Cow skull-2.jpg

A cow skull.

I can’t tell a horse skeleton from a bovine one, unless I can see the holes for the horns in the cranium. I found the cow skull in this picture last week, when I was walking a trail where contact with other people was unlikely. The other bones had been scattered, indicating the vultures had finished their job some time ago, probably succeeded by rats and racoons, then the usual suspects from the insect world. And some creature(s) had made small holes hrough the bone itself. It reminded me that the fossilized dinosaur skeletons we see in museums must have been covered over quite soon after death, or ancient scavengers would have dispersed the bones over a wide area. And of course most vertebrate fossils, let’s remember, are usually discovered piecemeal.

Today, walking a different trail, I came upon more bones, also (I think) bovine. I didn’t see the skull, but there were ribs, a leg bone, and a number of vertebrae. I brought one of the vertebrae home with me, since they’re fascinating shapes to study, and the original owner obviously wasn’t using it any more. They also help explain how our own human backbones work, with the spinal cord passing through the central hole, and the tendons and connecting tissues anchoring to rougher surfaces. One side has a projecting boss, the other a smooth indentation to receive the boss of the next vertebra in the column.


The cow vertebra.

Skeletal design is a remarkable thing, but what most fascinates me about bone is how dense it is. I see it, and think it should be like a ceramic, and quite heavy in the hand. But it’s surprisingly light stuff, even in a creature as heavy as a cow. Bone from a butcher’s still has water-containing soft tissue inside it, making it heavier, but the pure bone almost floats on its own.

I’ll have to hide my small trophy from the dogs, who will no doubt consider it theirs by right of having bone-crunching teeth. I already keep a small collection of animal curiosities I’ve come across over the years, and this will sit with them.

For humans, the skeleton is so often a reminder of death and mortality. The Aztecs, for example, kept skull racks (tzompantli) for their victims, as a kind of reminder to their gods of what they had offered to the forces shaping their existence.

Animal bones, though, are actually reminders of how subtly and precisely nature puts itself together. They do show us, obviously, that life ends in its time, but they also demonstrate life’s self-renewing consistency. If I ever came upon the remains of an ox from a million years ago, I’d expect its vertebrae to be so similar to the one I retrieved today, I’d be hard put to tell them apart. Details would be different, but the basic pattern would follow a design that emerged long, long before bipedal primates ever walked the earth.

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