Jul. 6th, 2014

toorsdenote: (me)
When I was in junior high, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Not in an "I wanna be Indiana Jones" way, but in a "Stay up late at night reading textbooks on how to do Carbon-14 testing" way. I visited HSU's diminutive natural history museum every week, in the half-hour between Scottish Country Dancing and my violin lesson, to look at the plaster casts of early human skulls.

For Christmas one year, my parents contacted the anthropologist in Colorado who made those casts, a Dr. Michael Charney, and bought a Homo erectus skull for me. Clearly thrilled that a 12-year-old girl would ask for a Homo erectus skull for Christmas, Charney sent both the requested skull and a Neanderthal skull as well, with a note to me saying "Do accept this as my gift to a budding scholar, whether in the sciences (biological, physical etc) or any other intellectual discipline." (He also wrote a longer note to my mother about his concern that science was losing out because so few women -- the smarter sex, in his opinion -- went on to graduate school.)

This began a several-year correspondence, all starting "My dear Tillinghast," inexpertly typewritten on stationery that read "Charney has a bone to pick with you." He answered my questions about human evolution, sent me handouts from his forensic anthropology classes about how to reconstruct faces from skulls using clay, bragged about the brilliance of his daughter, gave me gory details about murder cases he was aiding in, even filled me in on departmental gossip. His letters were always hilarious. When I told him that looking at all these beautiful skulls was making modern human skulls look quite ugly, with no brow ridges to speak of, he wrote back, "Were Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Venus, Marilyn Monroe ugly? Are you ugly? If you tell me that that is so I will send back to you the engagement ring you did not give me." I might note here that he was about 83 at the time. He sent me a Homo habilis as another gift, and I bought an Australopithicus africanus.



Charney died in 1998, but I still have all his letters and class notes, and of course the four skulls. I've always felt like I let him down a little by not going into the sciences, though he encouraged me to follow my curiosity in whatever direction it led. As I recall, his beloved daughter (about whom he frequently wrote) also studied international relations, so he can't have been too let down. I sort of wish he were around now, so I could tell him I'm finally going into one of the male-dominated fields whose lack of female contributions worried him.

This morning, Zoe wanted to eat breakfast with the Homo erectus -- it's her favorite because it's the only one with a lower jaw, so she can talk to it. She started asking questions about the skull, and I showed her some video clips of reconstructed Homo erectus, noting some of the differences between them and us. The reconstructions are all done by computer these days, of course -- no more tables instructing how many millimeters of clay to build up on to the gnathion to reconstruct a mandible. But I think Charney'd be happy that the next generation of "dear Tillinghast" was asking curious questions about our human ancestors. I have to admit I got a bit weepy-eyed at the thought.

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