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Encore: Classroom skeleton — whose bones are these?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Many high school science or art rooms have a human skeleton hanging next to a chalkboard or by a teacher's desk. And many of those skeletons - they're made with real bones. Reporter Elissa Nadworny of the NPR ed team had one in her high school in Erie, Pa., and a few years back, she set out to find out whose bones they were.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Many of these skeletons around the country have names. There's Mr. Bones in New Mexico, Lord Dooley in North Carolina and Courtney in Rhode Island. The one at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, where I went - it doesn't have a name. But it does have a story, and I wanted to know it. So I brought Adam Cole, the science reporter behind NPR's Skunk Bear video series, back home with me to Erie.

That was our lunch table, corner table.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Oh, yeah?

NADWORNY: Music classes are down there.

And when we walked into Kim Leasure's art class, Room 17...

COLE: There it is.

NADWORNY: Wow, oh, my gosh, just hanging up there.

In the back of the classroom - our skeleton.

COLE: He's really strung together.

NADWORNY: Mrs. Leasure has been using it to teach ceramics. She says its way better than a plastic reproduction.

KIM LEASURE: It's much more real, real life.

NADWORNY: But where is it from?

LEASURE: I have no idea where he came from, but he was passed down from art teacher to art teacher.

NADWORNY: Did you know how long it's been here?

LEASURE: It could have been here for a hundred years.

NADWORNY: We asked the principal, James Vieira.

JAMES VIEIRA: The lore is that it came from Ganges in some type of accident or washout. We consistently hear that its male based on the bone structure.

NADWORNY: So the question is, is that story true?

COLE: All right, great.

NADWORNY: The folks in Eire let us pack up the bones so we could investigate. The more I researched human skeletons, all the clues pointed to India, where for decades there was a somewhat shady but legal trade in human remains. It started in the mid-1800s.

SCOTT CARNEY: At its height, Calcutta was exporting about 60,000 human skeletons every year.

NADWORNY: That's Scott Carney. He's an expert on India's bone trade and the author of "The Red Market."

CARNEY: These are the poorest of poor people in the world. And when they died, then their bodies were sold. It was a horrendous situation.

NADWORNY: And yet the legal trade persisted until the 1980s. So our skeleton could have come from the Ganges region like the principal thought. But we needed science, so we took the skeleton to Mercyhurst University, to a bunch of forensic anthropologists. And we consulted with the Smithsonian and sent a small sample of the bone to a lab at Penn State. After about four months, we got the results.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

NADWORNY: I called Principal Vieira and Mrs. Leasure to fill them in.

VIEIRA: Well, hello there.

NADWORNY: So I want to just tell you what we heard back.

VIEIRA: We're excited. I was wondering the other day. I'm like, when am I going to hear back?

NADWORNY: The first thing I tell them - it's a female.

LEASURE: What?

VIEIRA: Oh, OK.

NADWORNY: She died in her mid-20s and was about five-two. And her ancestry - probably Asian.

LEASURE: OK, interesting.

NADWORNY: From the chemical signature in her bones, she ate land plants and animals, not things like corn or fish, which means she lived somewhere continental, like India.

And so then the final analysis we did was - they carbon dated the bones to find out how old they were.

VIEIRA: OK.

NADWORNY: I tell them it's most likely that this person lived from 1875 to 1920, which fits right in that bone trade timeline.

LEASURE: Wow.

VIEIRA: Wow. Holy cow - pretty amazing what you can find out.

LEASURE: Right, yeah.

VIEIRA: It becomes, you know, a person more than just an object. I think that's the part that's, like, kind of freaking me out a little bit.

NADWORNY: So like a lot of schools with skeletons like this, my old high school faces a decision. Should they bury it like a school in the U.K. did or continue to use it as a teaching tool? Perhaps it's a question for the students. What is our moral obligation to these bones? Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Erie, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.