There are 206 bones in the human body--one more than a horse, and a hundred or so fewer than a mouse. Yet one reigns supreme in matters of mystery and symbolism: the skull. Our fascination probably began millennia ago. Compared with other body parts, a disproportionately large number of skulls are found in archaeological sites. Many anthropologists surmise that early humans, in frequent times of famine, practiced cannibalism and accorded varying significance to the parts consumed. Thighs and forearms were most likely eaten with relish and abandon, but skulls were revered. Their markings and burial settings suggest they were used in rituals, and this special treatment preserved them for thousands of years while other bones disintegrated. Why the captivation with skulls? The eyeless sockets, firm jaw, and teeth in the rictus of an eternal grin--the skull is ghostlike and terrifying, but still recognizably animal. It represents the soul and reminds us of the inescapable fate we will all face.
One of the most expansive private skull collections in the world, containing more than 2,000 specimens, is tucked improbably into a spare bedroom in a small house in England. It belongs to amateur taxidermist Alan Dudley, whose hobby began as a teenager when he found a dead fox and decided to study it. He took off its fur with a knife and tweezers and got his first good look at a whole skull, magnificent in its purity and perfection. He began gathering more skulls from zoos, collectors, and anywhere else he could find them. Over the years--as his single fox was joined by a bat, a newt, an anteater, a cuckoo, and so on--Dudley became widely renowned for his collection. These pages showcase some of his most intriguing specimens.
A lion's bite can exert 1,000 pounds of force, allowing it to crack the skulls of large mammals easily. Lions are internally very similar to tigers. Their skulls are all but indistinguishable, though lions tend to top out at around 500 pounds of body weight, while tigers can exceed 600.
Reprinted from Skulls, by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. Copyright © 2012