THE BLOG
07/08/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Sharing a Past and a Future

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

'Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?' So wrote the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne in the preface to his most celebrated essay, "Urn Burial" (1658).

Who indeed? Not Browne, that's for sure. When he died in 1682 he was buried in the Norwich parish church where he had worshipped. In the 19th century, however, the grave was disturbed during the course of some building work, and Browne's skull was taken for a souvenir by a surgeon at the local hospital. It was only reunited with the rest of the body in 1922, and reburied with due ceremony - the register noting Browne's age now as 317 -- although it is uncertain that the skull returned from the hospital's collection is truly Browne's.

Long before paleontology and anthropology developed as scientific disciplines, Urn Burial speculates eloquently on what can be understood from the unearthing of human remains. Browne even anticipates the potential for modern techniques of facial reconstruction. 'Physiognomy outlives ourselves, and ends not in our graves,' he wrote.

As well as providing a means of tracing hominid evolution over millions of years, human bones and associated remains can tell us much about how our ancestors lived. Their shapes reveal strengths and weaknesses and clues as to what kinds of tasks they specialised in. Their condition can tell us about disease and injury. Teeth provide clues to diet. Secondary evidence fills in other information. Fossil footprints can reveal how fast we ran. The biased cut of paleolithic axeheads suggests that our cultural bias against left-handers may be a modern thing.

This is very different from the story we were telling ourselves 150 years ago when man believed he had a God-given dominion over nature, and even Thomas Huxley believed human teeth evidenced the evolutionary superiority of white men 'in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites.' -- Hugh Aldersey-Williams

But always, the stories we find are ones that resonate with our own times. Browne's essay went down well in an age obsessed with melancholia. Louise Leakey, for her part, puts a very 21st-century environmentalist interpretation on her findings. For Leakey, understandably, we are where we come from. She even discerns in a hominid skull in the shape of the African continent. We are, she says, one of many mammalian species, one of perhaps 16 ape species to have walked upright on this planet. We share a past and the future, she says. This is very different from the story we were telling ourselves 150 years ago when man believed he had a God-given dominion over nature, and even Thomas Huxley believed human teeth evidenced the evolutionary superiority of white men 'in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites.'

Browne-like, I wonder what a Leakey 200,000 years hence -- quite likely on present trends of the family's dedication to this field -- might deduce from our remains. And what might they miss? What could they never know? They would discover our relative longevity, but might have trouble picking out the fine detail from all the data revealing that life expectancy has doubled only in the last century or two. They would doubtless note our general freedom from savage injury -- few cracked skulls or hacked bones. They might be astonished at our crowded society, the density of our habitations, and the sheer quantities of stuff we apparently needed to surround ourselves with. They would discover from the size and shape of our bones that our lives were very sedentary. They would see from our teeth that our diet was high in sugar. They might be lucky enough to obtain traces of DNA which would show them our relatedness and our migrations.

But what crosses my mind is that they would still not really know how we spent our time or what made us tick as individuals. The real substance of our lives would remain obscure. As Sir Thomas Browne put it: 'There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories.'

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