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Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death

Popular ScienceNew
The city has killed most of your ancestors, and it's probably killing you, too – this book tells you why

By: Brenna Hassett(Author)

328 pages, 8 plates with colour photos and colour & b/w illustrations

Bloomsbury Sigma (Bloomsbury imprint)

Paperback | Jan 2018 | #236146 | ISBN-13: 9781472922960
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £9.99 $13/€11 approx
Hardback | Feb 2017 | #232445 | ISBN-13: 9781472922939
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £16.99 $22/€19 approx

About this book

Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer some 12,000 years ago. You've got a choice – carry on foraging, or plant a few seeds and move to one of those new-fangled settlements down the valley. What you won't know is that urban life is short and riddled with dozens of new diseases; your children will be shorter and sicklier than you are, they'll be plagued with gum disease, and stand a decent chance of a violent death at the point of a spear.

Why would anyone choose this?

But choose they did. Why? This is one of the many intriguing questions tackled by Brenna Hassett in Built on Bones. Based on research on skeletal remains from around the world, Built on Bones explores the history of humanity's experiment with the metropolis, and looks at why our ancestors chose city life, and, by and large, have stuck to it. It explains the diseases, the deaths and the many other misadventures that we have unwittingly unleashed upon ourselves throughout the metropolitan past, and as the world becomes increasingly urbanised, what we can look forward to in the future.

Built on Bones offers an accessible insight into a critical but relatively unheralded aspect of the human story: our recent evolution. It tells the story of shifts in human longevity, growth and health that have occurred as we transitioned from a mobile to a largely settled species. Beginning with the very earliest experiments in settling down, the narrative moves slowly forward in time, with each chapter discussing a new element of humanity's great urban experiment.

"Built on Bones is entertaining, colloquial and has a fine line in funny footnotes."
The Times

"An upbeat, wisecracking attempt to trace the development of cities through thousands of years of human disease, violence and misery [...] Amusing footnotes interrupt serious arguments, while pop culture references jostle with sobering research."

"This book explores how our journey from hunter-gatherers to urban dwellers has impacted our state of health. Using clues recovered from archaeological sites and ancient skeletal remains, it carefully highlights some of the unpleasant consequences of urbanisation."
– Dr Daniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology, The British Museum

"Fascinating subject matter [...] a fun, addictive read."
Readers Digest

"Ms. Hassett [...] has gifts of scholarship and wordsmithery [...] she addresses one of the most absorbing problems in the history of the last 14,000 years."
Wall Street Journal

"An amusing and scholarly book."
The Times, Saturday Review


1) Introduction
2) I will not be moved.
3) Here kitty kitty
4) Feed me, Seymour
5) You say you want a Revolution?
6) Three (thousand) is a crowd
7) Frayed tempers and cracked skulls
8) City versus city
9) How the other half dies
10) Used and abused
11) Showing off, ritually
12) Plagues, poxes, and other souvenirs
13) All in it together
14) No one likes a fellow with a social disease
15) When beer is the better choice
16) So why bother?

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Brenna Hassett is an archaeologist who specializes in using clues from the human skeleton to understand how people lived and died in the past. Her research focuses on the evidence of health and growth locked into teeth, and she uses dental anthropological techniques to investigate how children grew (or didn't) across the world and across time. She has dug poor Roman-period burials near the Giza pyramids, surveyed every last inch of a remote Greek island famous for the Antikythera mechanism (with a goat-to-human ratio of 350:1), looked intently for slag at the foot of a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand, accidentally crumbled an 8,000 year old mud brick wall at the famous central Anatolian site of Catalhoyuk in Turkey, and drunk whiskey watching twilight fall over Cappadocia at the beautiful nearby site of Asikli Hoyuk. Brenna is one-quarter of the TrowelBlazers project, an outreach, advocacy and academic effort to celebrate women's contributions to the trowel-wielding arts. Originally from the United States, she completed her Ph.D at University College, London, and has been based at London's Natural History Museum since 2012.

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