• Question: Hi, by looking at different bones of humans and animals can you tell how old they are or what bones were like thousands of years ago

    Asked by meerkat4 to Alison on 6 Jul 2012.
    • Photo: Alison Atkin

      Alison Atkin answered on 6 Jul 2012:


      Hi Meerkat! What a great name to use, I love meerkats. 🙂 And what a great question! I mostly deal with human bones, but a lot of the methods are the same for animal bones. When we find human bones, we are very careful to record all of the information about where we find them and anything else we find with them – as this can be very helpful for telling us more about the person and when they lived.

      In order to find out when the bones are from, we can usually either tell by looking at what they were buried with (lots of different artefacts are only used during certain times in history) or we can send samples of material off to be dated using scientific methods like ‘radiocarbon’ dating – this tests the level of carbon in organic materials (and bones are organic) to see how much if left, as it disappears at a constant rate of time after we die.

      We can figure out approximately how old someone it by looking at their skeleton – things like their teeth, the ends of their bones, and their joints can tell us a lot about how developed someone was (whether they were still growing or they were done). Our teeth all come in at different times until we’re about 14 – then our third molars (or ‘wisdom teeth’) come in by the time we’re about 18 or 20 (if they come in at all). So for younger people, teeth are very good for ageing. After this, we can look at the bones – as they finish developing quite late in life!

      We can learn more about the person’s life by looking at the bones to see if there is any type of disease or injury and the structure of their skeleton to learn more about their health. Other types of scientific tests can take tiiiny samples of bone and learn what the person used to eat when they were alive and where they might have grown up!

      Our bones are a living organ in our body, constantly chaning while we’re alive and reacting to what we eat, how we exercise, and how healthy we are – so by looking at the bones we can tell a lot about a person!

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