Johannesburg - If you’ve watched the fascinating crime series Bones, starring Emily Deschanel as the forensic anthropologist Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan, you’ll have gained some insight into what a skeleton of bones can tell you about its owner, and perhaps, how they may have died.
While his work is not as dramatic and he doesn’t solve crimes, our own “bone detective”, 32-year-old Brendon Billings, from Coronationville west of Joburg, is contributing to our understanding of evolution and how intelligence works in the animal kingdom – in humans in particular.
A biological anthropologist with a special interest in primates (apes, monkeys, humans and other primates), Billings has the unusual title of “Bone Detective” at Maropeng, the visitor site for the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site. This is a clever PR spin on what he does, giving the impression that he spends most of his time at excavation sites dusting off millennia-old fossils.
In truth he’s to be found mostly in his office at the Wits Medical School, where he’s doing very interesting research into what makes us tick based on the size and shape of our bones.
Billings is doing a PhD degree looking at our roots in cognition (intelligence). He also happens to be the chairman of all collections at the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits Medical School, and curator of the huge Raymond Dart Human Skeletal Collection, the largest collection of human skeletons in southern Africa.
In this astonishing collection are more than 2 700 human skeletons, with ages that extend from 100 years to newborns, and including a variety of indigenous and immigrant populations from southern Africa, Europe and Asia.
Adjoining Billings’s office is another enormous collection of skeletons, of every kind of animal from whale to elephant as well as skulls of hominids and apes. “The school is linked to an international network of anthropologists, palaeontologists and zoologists and we do exchanges, so I might swap a skull for a kangaroo skeleton, for example,” he says.
Billings explains that the more fossils and skeletons are available to examine and analyse, the deeper the scientist’s understanding of evolution and the environmental forces that continually force changes in our human physiology and behaviour. The desire for understanding our roots is what first excited Billings and prompted him to embark on this unusual career, spearheaded by the late palaeo-anthropologist Professor Phillip Tobias.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve wondered about where we come from, why we are different to other animals, what defines us as human,” says Billings.
“I was also very bothered about how science seemed to support apartheid notions that black people are intellectually inferior. Science has since discovered that the size of the cranium in humans, which is indicative of the brain size, is not an indicator of intelligence, that people with small brains can be more intelligent than people with bigger brains and vice versa,” he explains.
Ironically, it was because his application to study medicine was rejected that Billings found his path and passion. “I enrolled for a BSc in human biology instead. Along the way I became hooked on Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The science of evolution has become my way to understand the world and answer some of these fundamental questions,” says Billings.
Many religious and cultural groups categorically reject the theory of Darwinism (which traces humans to prehistoric apes), but this hasn’t presented a problem for Billings. “I’m lucky that my family has been open-minded about my science,” he says. He agrees, though, that these considerations may possibly limit some young people in choosing this discipline, which also entails close encounters with hundreds of skeletons and bodies, some in poor shape.
Billings has often been on excavation sites, mostly at the Cradle of Humankind, where he offers “Bone Detective tours”. “Each fossil find fills in a little piece of the puzzle of our evolution, why our skulls are shaped the way they are, why the jaw receded, how we differ from our closest relative, the chimpanzee. As more evidence comes to light, so the story of evolution changes,” he says.
And the story is still unfolding, which is why it’s important for scientists to study and compare modern human skeletons as diligently as they have with ancient fossils. So, occasionally, Billings is invited to go out to forensic sites where bodies have been found, to examine the remains.
At Wits, he’s surrounded by cadavers and skeletons already collected. One “library” near his office is like a tomb, containing row upon row of boxes containing human skeletons, some dating back 800 years and older. “I assist scientists with their research in a wide array of disciplines such as palaeoanthropology (prehistoric human past) and forensic anthropology (studying human remains to establish cause of death). They need to feel and touch the specimens. It is essential to these areas of learning,” he says.
His own research, meanwhile, has been offering us some intriguing insights into human behaviour. One is that human males are unusual in their instinct to care for and protect their offspring – only 5 percent of mammal species invest in the well-being of their children. Billings cites the change in neurochemistry to include bonding, which is caused by the hormone oxytocin. “This is what I believe to be responsible for both males and females being responsible caregivers according to human standards,” he says.
On the issue of our diets, Billings says the growing trend towards a so-called palaeo-diet (high protein with veggies and fruit) is not really appropriate for modern humans. “We need to contextualise the practicality of such a diet in a modern-day setting. The day-to-day activity of modern humans is substantially less than our cavemen forefathers. We certainly utilise less energy. We have different bio-social demands in relation to metabolic energy and how we use it,” he says.
Visit with Billings for an hour, and you’ll hear dozens of these interesting titbits, and you can’t help getting swept up in the epic story that is our evolution, made real by the hundreds of once-living props that surround him.
He’ll show you the wrist and hand-like bones in a whale flipper, the difference in the cranial shapes of a male and female chimpanzee, even conjoined twin deformation in an aborted pig foetus. “We are all related,” says Billings. And you can see it, just by looking at the bones.
SEE HIM IN PERSON
Brendon Billings will host an evening focused on palaeoanthropology on July 26 at Maropeng.
The cost is R375 a person, which includes welcome drinks, a three-course set menu and the presentation.
To book, call Maine at 014 577 9000 or e-mail [email protected]
Here are two drama series that are good candidates for video binge watching.
Renewed this year for a 10th season, Bones is an American drama series loosely based on the life and writings of crime novelist and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, who also produces the show.
It stars Emily Deschanel as forensic anthropologist Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan, who works with FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) to solve the mystery behind human remains. It is set primarily in Washington DC.
To lighten the show’s grave subject matter, there are comedic undertones and, later, romantic tension between Bones and Booth.
This British crime thriller series focuses on the investigations of a team of forensic pathologists working in London.
Now in its 17th year of broadcast, it was created by Nigel McCrery, a former murder squad detective who based it on a female forensic pathologist he had worked with.
This character, Professor Sam Ryan, was played by Amanda Burton but she departed early in the eighth series.
Regular characters Leo Dalton (William Gaminara) and Dr Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward) were then joined by a new character, Dr Nikki Alexander, played by Emilia Fox. - The Star