Peter Dickinson

A Bone from a Dry Sea

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A Bone from a Dry Sea Summary

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A Bone from a Dry Sea (1993), a young adult novel by the British poet and author Peter Dickinson, follows Vinny, the daughter of a taphonomist (an archaeologist specializing in fossilized remains) who joins her father on a dig in Africa and contributes to a groundbreaking discovery. Intertwined with Vinny’s story is the narrative of Li, the female child of a hominid tribe, living in the same corner of Africa four million years before Vinny’s arrival. The two storylines are linked by the titular bone, evidence of Li’s prodigious genius, which has survived the eons. Dickinson is best known for his young adult novels Tulku (1979) and City of Gold (1980), both of which won the British Library Association’s Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction. He was born in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and much of his fiction is set there.

Vinny’s story begins as she arrives at the archaeological site where her father Sam is working. She is a bright, determined teenager, who has overcome her mother’s reservations to spend her summer vacation in Africa. The team of archaeologists is searching for evidence of an ancestor hominid along the coast, on land and in the water, but so far, they have found nothing but pig bones.

In preparation for her visit, Vinny has read the work of feminist anthropological writer Elaine Morgan on the “aquatic ape” hypothesis. Morgan argues that modern humans may be descended from apes that adapted to living by the sea, and spent much of their time in the water. As well as advancing this hypothesis, Morgan argues that the mainstream thesis that humans evolved from a grasslands-based “mighty hunter” is shaped by patriarchal assumptions in the scientific community. Excited about these ideas, Vinny discusses them with the scientists on the dig, embarrassing Sam and earning her the scorn of the dig’s leader, Dr. Joe Hamiska, a charismatic and successful scientist of whom the other archaeologists are in awe.

Vinny’s arrival proves a good luck charm for the diggers: they soon start to find hominid remains. Elaine points out that the remains are not incompatible with Morgan’s theory, her father agrees, and soon there is conflict in the camp, between Sam and Dr. Hamiska. Dickinson provides a satirical overview of the politics of an archaeological dig, showing us the agenda of each scientist, whether scientific or career-oriented.

Four million years earlier, Li lives with her tribe along the coast. Her people look more or less like humans, although smaller and stockier, with webbed toes and fingers. They spend most of their time in the water, never straying inland beyond sight of the sea. They have no tools, and they have not developed human language (there is no dialogue in Li’s sections of the books). Li’s people have always lived this way, and they cannot imagine anything different—except for Li. Li likes to observe things and think about them. One day, she watches a spider catch an insect in its web, and it gives her an idea. Her primitive shrimping net is the first tool the tribe has ever had, but Li soon produces more. When a member of her tribe breaks a leg, she makes a splint to set the damaged bone. Eventually, Li learns to cooperate with a school of dolphins that lives in the sea off the coast, and with their help, she works out how to trap large numbers of fish.

Li’s innovations—and her ability to conjure up unprecedented amounts of food—soon causes trouble. Like Vinny in the present-day storyline, Li becomes the center of a dispute between two dominant males: the strongest males of her tribe. The group’s current leader wants to preserve his absolute dominance, but another strong male offers a slightly more open vision, in which he rules with the consent and cooperation of Li and the rest of the tribe. Unable to rule herself, Li knows she cannot take the risk of challenging the tribe’s hierarchy. Instead, she finds cunning ways to throw her weight behind the second male’s vision of a fairer tribe.

The two stories converge when the present day diggers discover the scapula bone of a dolphin in an arid inland area that has not been under water for millions of years. A hole has been drilled in the bone that could only have been made by a tool and a creature with the hands to use it (in fact, the hole was drilled by Li, to treat an injured dolphin). In spite of Dr. Hamiska’s protests, this discovery provides the evidence that Sam—and Vinny—need that the hominids they have discovered lived in a close relationship with aquatic life.

Although the science of the “aquatic ape” is speculative, Dickinson’s portrayal of modern scientific research is “gripping” and “shrewd” (Publisher’s Weekly). A Bone from a Dry Sea explores the way scientific knowledge is produced in a way that makes it accessible to younger readers, while also portraying the dynamics of gender and power in modern society.