Skeleton sexing

Apparently, there's a new time-travelling sci-fi series showing on ITV (UK) called Primeval. I didn't catch the first episode, and I'm unlikely to try to catch any more, if reports of the first episode are anything to go by.

One of the regular commenters on my other weblog, Keith Beach, emailed me about episode one of Primeval earlier this week, summarising one scene as follows:

Scientist, in the past looking for missing wife finds modern human skeleton. Soldier with him asks if it's his wife, said scientist counts the ribs and states "No, it's a man!"


That's right, somewhere in the Land of Darwin, there is a scriptwriter who apparently still believes the one about men and women having different numbers of ribs (because, according to the usually highly reliable Book of Genesis, God took one of Adam's ribs to make Eve, so it stands to reason that men must have one fewer ribs than women).

In fact, I'm pretty sure not even the most naive of fundamentalist god-botherers (and you don't get much more naive than that) believes this hoary, old chestnut. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that Genesis is totally correct, why on earth should anyone expect men to have only 23 ribs to women's 24? For Adam's sons to inherit his rib-deficiency, they would have to inherit an aquired trait from their father. In other words, so-called Lamarckism would need to be correct.

Which it isn't.

Sexing human skeletons is far from easy. For part of my degree, I attended an archaeological course where we got to mess around with exhumed Anglo Saxon skeletons. One day, the teacher (who was a surgeon in his day job), handed me a skull and asked me to tell him what I could about it:

"It's definitely human," I said.
"Very funny. Anything else?"
"It's definitely dead."
"Come on now, be serious. Can you tell me anything about this skull?"
"Erm… It's female."
"Excellent! That's amazing! Sexing a human skull is surprisingly difficult. What makes you say it's female?"
"Its mouth is open."

I don't think the outspoken feminists on the course thought my joke was particularly funny.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

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