The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Skull in the Rock & Their Skeletons Speak

The Skull in the Rock

Written by Marc Aronson and Lee Berger
National Geographic, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4263-1010-2
Grades 6- 8
 Book Review
 “For Dr. Berger, it would have been enough to find that one special bone. But the clavicle was just the beginning. It was the rabbit hole beckoning Alice, the wardrobe flung open to Narnia, the first clue to what is becoming an entirely new way of understanding human evolution.” Like in his earlier work, If Stones Could Speak, Aronson takes a step away from the historical writing he is known for to write about research that was unfolding, and continues to unfold, as he was writing about it. Traveling to South Africa to witness coauthor Lee Berger at work, Aronson documents how the discovery of two almost complete skeletons of Australopithecus Sediba in the Malapa region of South Africa, the “Cradle of Humankind,” has changed scientists’ understanding of human evolution, moving from the image of a “ladder leading up” or a “tree with branches” to “a braided stream where different species interbred in ways we are only starting to understand.” In the first book ever written on the subject, we learn that Sediba has an opposable thumb, like we do, but very long arms, so that he could walk on two feet and deftly move around in trees as well. Sediba’s diet most likely consisted of berries, fruit, and even bark. The book ends with a promise to share future research with their readers: “Every time a scientist finishes working on some aspect of sediba and announces his or her results, we will explain those results to you.” Linked below (see Further Explorations) is the website the authors have already used to share newly announced discoveries. “We have agreed to do this so that you can join in the hunt, so you can see what we miss, so that you are the ones to find the next beautiful anomaly.”
Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World
Written by Sally M. Walker and Douglas W. Owsley
Carolrhoda Books, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-7613-7457-2
Grades 6-8 
Book Review 
 “The amazing thing about Kennewick Man’s story is that the more people who participate, the better it gets. When artists, scientists, dentists, teachers, doctors, and even you discover his story and remember him, Kennewick Man’s legacy grows.” After exploring history in last year’s Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917, Sally Walker returns to forensic anthropology and the discoveries that interdisciplinary teams working over time can achieve. Writing the book with Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institute, and a key scientist researching Kennewick Man, Walker presents middle grade readers with an extraordinary window into our Paleoamerican past. The narrative is chronological, from Kennewick Man’s discovery in 1996, to his legal entanglement and literal storage, to the latest discoveries as the book went to print. Within that chronology, however, Walker enters and re-enters past and present, using research on other Paleoamericans to help her readers understand Kennewick Man’s story, and clarifying the ways in which advanced science has allowed research that couldn’t have been conducted when he was originally located, demonstrating to all that we must “allow room for future revisions,” as is the nature of scientific discovery. She pays tribute to our some of our (perhaps) earliest North American ancestors, and reminds us that “[w]hen their skeletons speak, it is fitting that we, the modern caretakers, should listen. Their stories are the human connections that makes them part of the present and us part of the past. It is the human connection that will carry all of us into the future.”
Teaching Ideas: Classroom Invitations
  • Author-Scientist Model as Mentor Text. Aronson and Walker co-wrote their books with the scientist who was doing the primary research on Sediba and Kennewick Man. Since each book was sent to print, new research discoveries have been released for both research endeavors. In an interdisciplinary language arts-science research project, have students read one of the books. Next, have them explore some of the latest research that did not have a chance to get incorporated into the texts (see Further Explorations). Locate several scientists working locally in your area. They might have an affiliation with a research organization, hospital, university, a state agency, or a manufacturing company. Have teams of students working with teams of researchers over the course of a trimester, semester, or year, documenting their research. To do so, students will have to conduct background research to get “up to speed.” At the end of the designated period of time, have each team of students write a digital magazine or create a video or podcast to share with the community. If it’s possible to pair your teams of students and scientists with teams of undergraduates studying in the same field, you will have an even richer research partnership. For a less ambitious (and time-consuming!) venture, invite a panel of local scientists to come and talk about their work, and have students work in teams to write share the research with the broader community in some capacity, such as a story on the school webpage or a podcast recording.
  • Nonfiction as “Mentor” for Next Generation Science Standards. The draft of the Next Generation Science Standards will be released this fall. The big ideas in the National Research Council’s (NRC) Framework, the foundational document for the new standards, “describes a vision of what it means to be proficient in science; it rests on a view of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge” (Achieve, Inc., 2012).  To do this, three “dimensions” will be “combined to form each standard:” Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas. In your middle grade science class, have students read one or both books at the beginning of the school year, to serve as a mentor, or model, of the three dimensions that are so essential to the new science standards. How do Lee Berger and Doug Owsley serve as mentor scientists? How do Marc Aronson and Sally Walker capture the practices and concepts at work and the core facts of the discipline that the scientists draw upon? You might want to have students in trios, in which each member is reading the text tracking a different dimension and how it is made manifest by the writing. Use this exploration as the catalyst for students’ yearlong study of science in which they are using the practices of science to identify and use crosscutting concepts, drawing upon their ever-increasing body of disciplinary core ideas.
  • Kids as Catalysts. Oddly enough, in both books, young people initially discovered the skeletal remains. In 1996, Will Thomas, age 20, and Dave Deacy, 19, discovered the 9,400-year-old Kennewick Man while getting ready to watch a boat race on the Columbia River. In 2008, Matthew Berger was only nine when he discovered the thin yellow bone that turned out to be the clavicle of a boy who lived approximately 1.9 million years ago. Is this just luck or chance? Author Marc Aronson in Skull in the Rock says that “[s]ometimes it is hardest to see the things that are right before your eyes.” He tells his readers that Lee Berger, who shared his research on sediba with scientists across the globe, “is passing the baton-encouraging you to train your eyes, to walk the land, to learn to see the anomaly-to make the next key discovery.” What role do your students think they have in “real” science? What can they do to make a difference in your community? What local research can you take part in, even if it is unconnected to forensic anthropology?
  • Mapping Human Pre-History. What does it mean to be a human being? Have your students explore this question before reading one or both of the above books, comparing and contrasting their answers. Next, have them students explore the digital resources of the Smithsonian Institute’s online exhibit “What Does It Mean to be Human?” What does the human family tree look like? What does Australopithecus Sediba at 1.9 million years old have in common with Kennewick Man, the oldest complete skeleton found to date in North America, at a mere 9,400 years old?  What do we? Using the Smithsonian resources, in particular the timeline of Homo Erectus, the August 2011 National Geographic digital resources (see Further Explorations below), in particular the map of human origins, the “Braided Stream” chart from Skull in the Rock, as well as other books and articles, have students create their own mural of what the scientific community thinks they know about the timeline of human origins. Can they create interactive components of the timeline to highlight the different changes that took place in different regions? What species lived concurrently? You might want to look into what databases your state pays for, that you have access to through your state, local, or school library system webpages. Be sure to work with your school librarian on this, to locate up-to-date research from all parts of the globe. There are tremendous interactive resources at the Smithsonian site, for exploring 3-D images of artifacts, bones, skulls, etc..
  • Research at What Price? Their Skeletons Speak details the long protracted legal battle over the right to research Kennewick Man. Who “owns” Kennewick Man or any other skeleton that that predates this century? Who should grant permission for such explorations? What are the benefits of the research? What are the drawbacks? Explore other contemporary explorations of skeletal remains, including the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan (see Further Explorations).  Of particular interest, of course, are such explorations in your area.
  • Live Research Discussion. The region in South Africa where Dr. Lee Berger has been doing his research has long been called “The Cradle of Humankind.” It was recently designated a World Heritage Site.  The South African government, with cooperation from museums around the world, including the United States, is building a laboratory at Malapa, where research will be broadcasted live around the world. What are the some of the possible benefits and drawbacks of live research? What other scientists do their work live? Who should decide what research is important enough to be made accessible to anyone in the world?
  • Forensic Anthropology Near You. What forensic research is being done where you live? Who are the Lee Bergers and Douglas Owsleys of your state? Have students read one or both of these books, or in combination with others (see Further Explorations below). Next, contact your local university to see who is conducting research, and have him/her come in to speak to your classes.  Have your students write nonfiction picture books (print or digital) on this local forensic research for students in the intermediate grades of your district.
  • Duet Exploration of Kennewick Man. In a previous entry on Teaching with Text Sets, we introduced the Duet Model, in which two books are paired together because of shared content, format or genre. In 2011, Katherine Kirkpatrick wrote Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man, a sixty-page picture book illustrated by Emma Stevenson. Have student start with the shorter text, and then move on to Walker & Owsley’s 2012 book. How did the authors represent the subject in similar ways? What information was missing from one book, and why? How might have co-authoring the book with Doug Owsley influenced how Sally Walker wrote her book? Finally, how do both books fit into the timeline of research on Kennewick Man that began with is discovery in the mid-1990s? Compare the new ideas represented in both books to the previous beliefs originating in research conducted in the late 1990s through the early 2000s. What does this say about the nature of scientific research? To start this comparison and contrast of changing research over time, you might want to begin with the reconstruction of Kennewick Man done in 1998 with the one completed in 2012.
  • Author Study. Both Aronson and Walker have a rich collection of books that they have authored for middle grade readers. Complete an author study in class of one or both authors. There are several ways to accomplish this. You can have two or three groups for each author, and allow students to select individual titles that they compare and contrast together. Or, you could conduct one author study in which small groups become experts on one book and then they come together in a jigsaw group to start comparing and contrast the author’s work. The goal would be to have the widest range of books represented. Have students examine the content of each author’s work, and the similarities and differences within the range. How does this content relate to each author’s professional and academic background? Have students also explore the authors’ research methods, writing style and the internal organization of texts (structure, format) across the body of work.
Further Explorations
Online Resources 
Marc Aronson
Sally Walker
Lee Berger
Next Generation Science Standards
PBS History Detectives
PBS History Detectives, Forensic Anthropology
Smithsonian Institute: What Does It Mean to Be Human Exhibit
Smithsonian Institute: Hominid Hunting
Center for the Study of First Americans
Scimania, Marc & Lee’s Webpage
Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site
National Geographic, July 12, 2012: Surprise Human Ancestor Find-Key Fossils Hidden in Lab Rock
Science Daily, July 12, 2012: “Early Human Ancestor, Australopithecus Sediba, Fossils Discovered in Rock”
NY Times, June 27, 2012: “Some Prehumans Feasted on Bark Instead of Grasses”
NPR Talk of the Nation Interview with Lee Berger, September 9, 2011
60 Minutes, April 2010, Lee Berger on Sediba
National Geographic, August 2008, “Part Ape, Part Human”
Kennewick Man
The Columbian, October 14, 2012: “Kennewick Man Was Just Passing Through”
NPR: October 12, 2012: All Things Considered Story, “Kennewick Man Was All Beefcake”
NY Times: July 2005, on Kennewick Research Resuming After Court Case
PBS Nova: 2000 Interview with Owsley, Prior to Research
NY Times, April 1998 on Original Reconstruction of Kennewick Man
Forensic Anthropology & US Colonial History
Written in Bone
Written in Bone, Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute
NY Times, February 2010, Story on African Burial Ground
The New York Preservation Archive Project, African Burial Ground
Citizen Science
Cornell Birds: Citizen Science Project
The Citizen Science Alliance
The National Wildlife Federation: Citizen Science
Burns, L.G. (2012). Citizen scientists: Be a part of a scientific discovery from your own backyard. New York: Henry Holt.
  • This book takes you through the four seasons, focusing on a different citizen science project in each.
Cooper, C.  (2008). Forensic Science. [DK Eyewitness series]. New York: DK Publishing.
  • This Eyewitness picture book provides a survey, or overview, of forensic science.
Deem, J. M. (2006). Bodies from the ash. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Deem, J. M. (2008). Bodies from the ice: Melting glaciers and the recovery of the past. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • These two books discuss research done on human remains found under the ash from Mt. Vesuvius’s explosion in AD 79 as well as discoveries made around the world from bodies preserved under ice.
Freedman, R. (2007). Who was first? New York: Clarion Books.
  • Freedman explores different theories that attempt to identify the first inhabitants of North America.
Jenkins, S. (2010). Bones: Skeletons and how they work.Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • This picture book provides a survey of how bones work in humans and animals, allowing readers to explore the similarities and differences in construction among humans, birds, animals, and fish.
Kirkpatrick, K. (2011). Mysterious bones: The story of Kennewick Man. Ill. by E. Stevenson. New York: Holiday House.
  • This recently published nonfiction picture book on Kennewick Man was named an Outstanding Social Studies Trade Book for 2011.
Rubalcaba, J. and Robertshaw, P. (2010). Every bone tells a story: Hominin discoveries, deductions, and debates. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
  • This survey book provides great details on the latest discoveries in hominin research, excluding, of course, discoveries made since the book went to press.
Thimmesh, C. (2009). Lucy long ago: Uncovering the mystery of where we come from. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • This specialized nonfiction explores the discovery in 1974 of the skeleton known as Lucy. Lucy’s discovery provided scientists with evidence that hominids began walking upright before they developed larger brains and established a new category of hominid.
Walker, S. (2009). Written in bone: Buried lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland.
Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing.
  • Walker’s previous work closely examines interdisciplinary research conducted in the Chesapeake Region, and is tied in to an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute.


Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.