Welcome to my Blog: Blood, Bones, & Mystery

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  • The Harry Przewalski Mystery Series
  • The Body on the Bed Historical Novel
  • Articles and other non-fiction
  • Paleontology

Welcome to my blog. My name is Leonard Krishtalka I’m the author of award-winning essays, the acclaimed book, Dinosaur Plots, and The Harry Przewalski mystery series. As a paleontologist, I have worked throughout the fossil-rich badlands of the American west, Canada, Patagonia, China, the Afar region of Ethiopia, and the Turkana region of Kenya.

In the Harry Przewalski mystery series, beginning with The Bone Field, Pittsburgh private detective Harry Przewalski unearths sex, treachery, and murder buried beneath the science of petrified shards, skin, and bones. The second novel is Death Spoke due November 2019. The third novel in the series is The Camel Driver, due summer 2020. 


Welcome to my Blog. In addition to information about my books, you’ll find posts about topics of interest to me.


“…and some run up hill and down dale, knapping the chucky stones to pieces with hammers, like so many road-makers run daft. They say it is to see how the world was made!”

Sir Walter Scott, St. Ronan’s Well, 1823


Anamcara Press LLC


The Camel Driver

A diabolical murder mystery: dead archeologist, two robbed graves, a lover’s trial, a bloody journal, a mummified Neandertal child, and a stunning revelation.

A major theme I’ve explored in my novel, The Camel Driver, which was published in November 2020, is the initial role that anthropology, biology and natural history museums played in promoting systemic racism. This theme is manifest in the story—the sin and redemption of a taxidermist who robs the graves of indigenous people and prepares them—taxidermies them—for human exhibits in museums and salons in 1800s Europe.

The Camel Driver, A Harry Przewalski Novel
The story weaves in and out of one of those exhibits, a world-famous diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh formerly called Arab Courier Attacked by Lions. It depicts a North African drama: A “courier,” dressed in traditional clothing, is crossing the Sahara Desert on a dromedary camel, when they are suddenly set upon by two ferocious Barbary lions. The courier has managed to grab his single-shot rifle and kill the lioness, who had attacked from the front. The male lion has leapt onto the camel from the side, burying his claws into the camel’s foot and hump, slowly pulling him down. The courier has pulled out his dagger and is about to plunge it into the lion’s throat. At the same time, the lion has lunged at the courier and is about to bite off his arm. We don’t know who wins this epic struggle. As with art, the verdict is in the mind of the viewer.

Arab Courier, now renamed Lion Attacking a Dromedary, has recently generated enormous controversy. For the past 120 years, it has been the second most popular display at the Carnegie. A few years ago the Carnegie X-rayed the mount and was shocked to discover that under the courier’s head dress is his real skull and teeth. The museum promptly draped it from public view, because human remains in a museum exhibit denigrates the people and culture of that individual. It also implies that grave-robbing and human taxidermy are acceptable in our museum displays and in the exhibiting of science and art.

Arab Courier Attacked by Lions. Photo by Leonard Krishtalka

Jules Verreaux, the French taxidermist who created Arab Courier, is infamous for this sort of museum work. He was a naturalist and wildlife merchant at his father’s natural history emporium in Paris, and later at France’s national museum of natural history. Verreaux likely obtained the skull and skeleton of the courier by robbing a grave in North Africa, perhaps in the same region where he collected the two Barbary lions for the exhibit. Then he taxidermied the human, the lions, and the camel, and mounted the dramatic scene of the attack over a bed of sand to simulate the desert landscape. He entered Arab Courier in the 1876 Paris Exposition. It won the gold medal.

Arab Courier is a creation of its time: in its makeup and history, it encompasses the racist ideas of the 1800s and 1900s that were broadcast to the world by European culture—by museums, zoos, and world fairs; by art, literature, theater and cinema; and by anthropology and biology taught in colleges and universities.

He was displayed throughout France, then at the 1888 Barcelona World’s Exposition, and then sold to a private museum in Banyoles, Spain, north of Barcelona, where he remained on exhibit until as late as 1990. Eventually, the Spanish government became concerned about international embarrassment over such a racist exhibit, but only because the 1992 Olympics were coming to Barcelona. So, against fervent protests from the mayor and townspeople of Banyoles, they forced repatriation of the chieftain to Botswana.

For example, fifty years earlier, in the 1826, during a wildlife collecting expedition to what is now Botswana, Verreaux and his brother, Eduoard, robbed the grave of a Botswanan chieftain who had died two days earlier. They skinned him, shipped his skin, skull and skeleton to their emporium in Paris, taxidermied him, and mounted him in a glass display case wearing an antelope cloth and clasping an orange shield and a barbed spear. They called the exhibit, “El Negro.”

Tree of human races. Photo by Leonard Krishtalka

The Banyoles museum is now silent about their “El Negro” exhibit. It is not mentioned in any of their brochures and none of the employees will talk about it. “El Negro” was only one of hundreds such despicable exhibits of native peoples from the colonies depicted as savages, subhuman, and inferior to white Europeans.

The El Negro display, a taxidermied Botswanan chief. USSlave.Blogspot.com

In 1831, the Paris Colonial Exposition featured a “human zoo” of indigenous people, Melanesians from New Caledonia in the South Pacific. It attracted 24 million visitors over six months. The U.S. participated in these depraved racist displays. In 1904, six Mbuti natives from the Congo were purchased by an American businessman, Samuel Verner, and put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair as living examples of an ape-like stage of human evolution. Five of them died of disease.

After the fair closed, the surviving Mbuti,named Ota Benga, was brought to New York and displayed as an African savage in the Hall of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1906 the Bronx Zoo in New York bought Ota Benga, shoved him in a cage with an orangutan, and hung up a sign that said: MISSING LINK. Ota Benga eventually committed suicide.

Ota Benga on display holding an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo, New York City in 1906. evblog.virginiahumanities.org

The last human zoo, advertised as Kongorama, was held at the 1958 Belgian World’s Fair. Remember that Emperor Leopold II owned the Congo, brutalized and enslaved its people, and mined its resources. Kongorama was a makeshift village of straw huts set in a tropical garden and encircled by a bamboo fence. Every day, Congolese families—women, men, children—forcibly imported from the Congo, were clothed in traditional dress and trotted out to do chores to the amusement of spectators, who tossed bananas and peanuts into the enclosure.
As the detective in The Camel Driver says, “Exhibits tell the bigotry of their time.” How did these racist ideas form and become incorporated into museums, zoos, world fairs, and other cultural media?

1958 human zoo at the Belgian World’s Fair featuring Congolese natives. Brussels Kongorama: Newsfeed.com

The origins of this racism––that whites were the superior race and all other peoples were inferior––goes back at least 250 years to the 1700s and early 1800 during the Enlightenment revolution in Europe. There’s two things to remember about the Enlightenment. One is the good, the other is ugly.

First, the good. The Enlightenment was a revolution that freed us from medieval thinking about who we are and how the Earth and its life arose. It replaced superstition and myth with our modern ideas of individual liberty, reason, democracy, free-will, and inquiry. Much of what we call science today was born then.

Now for the ugly. The heyday of the Enlightenment was also the heyday of European colonialism in Africa, Asia, Australia, India, and the Americas. When the European explorers, merchants and settlers encountered the native peoples in the colonies they were immediately judged to be primitive, savage, and subhuman, not capable of the liberty, reason, democracy and culture that defined European Enlightenment thinking. Being classified as subhuman, this justified the wholesale subjugation, enslavement, and killing of the native peoples by the European powers.

And anthropology and biology gave its scientific stamp of approval to this racism. Anthropology—the study and classification of humankind—became a full-blown theory of race and racial superiority. One of the Enlightenment’s heralded philosophers, Immanuel Kant, put it bluntly in his 1798 anthropological treatise:
“Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race – The yellow [race] have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are – the [Native] American peoples.”

Human races poster. https://www.vegansproducts.com/our-humanity-failure-as-enslaving-people-in-human-zoos/

In effect, people’s skin color alone became the measure of intellectual capacity. People’s physical traits pointed to their assigned place on Nature’s “tree of life” between apes and European Caucasians—the white race—which constituted the ideal. They were followed in increasingly diminished biological and cultural development by “Mongolians, the yellow race,” “Malayans, the brown race,” “Ethiopians, the black race,” and “Americans, the red race.” This idea of racial ranking and superiority became the canon, thought to be humanity’s natural order.

This racist virus became our cultural pandemic. It infected generation after generation through science, art, literature, history, education, entertainment, film, world’s fairs, zoos, and museums. It suffused society and our consciousness. It became systemic.
The obvious question now is, what to do? The answer, I think, lies in how Verreaux achieved redemption in The Camel Driver. Through his own grave-robbing and taxidermy for human exhibits––the skinning and dissection and stuffing of the native individuals––he discovered that all he had been taught by scientific luminaries and society about native peoples and their alleged racial ranking and racial inferiority was complete BS. With this realization, he designs the Arab Courier exhibit to demonstrate racial equality in physical and mental traits.
This translates to the larger scale of the museum community and all other cultural media. First, they need to own up to and face their complicit past in the 1800s and 1900s. Second, biology, anthropology, and much of popular culture have since disproven, disowned, and repudiated any and all notions of race and racial superiority. Museums can and should deploy the very collections once used to broadcast racism to teach what we got wrong then, why we got it wrong, and what we now know to be right about native peoples and their cultures.
For example, at the Carnegie Museum, the Arab Courier diorama can be undraped to provide a powerful teaching moment about the Verreaux natural history emporium in Paris, why they created appalling exhibits of African native peoples, and what does current knowledge tell us about these peoples, their cultures, and their ways of life.

Museums have three powerful weapons to advance this agenda. They have the knowledge––the artifacts and exhibits for these teaching moments. They have the potency––hundreds of millions of visitors in their public galleries, and their online and social media platforms and community outreach programs. And they have the public trust: all polls show that people trust the information they get in museums more than from any other medium.
With these three weapons––knowledge, potency and trust––museums worldwide can help exorcise the systemic racist memes from our cultural consciousness.

Leonard Krishtalka is the author of award-winning essays, the acclaimed book, Dinosaur Plots, and the Harry Przewalski series of mystery novels, The Bone Field, Death Spoke, and The Camel Driver. As a paleontologist, he has explored the fossil-rich badlands of the American West, Canada, China, Patagonia, Kenya, and Ethiopia––inspirations for the intrigues of science and murder. His next book, The Body on The Bed, is forthcoming.

About that ‘I’m not a scientist, but I think …’

I write regular op-ed pieces for the Lawrence Journal- World on science, science policy and the environment.  

About that ‘I’m not a scientist, but I think …’

Lawrence Journal-World, August 23, 2019

The administration continued its assault on the U.S. environment on Aug. 12 when it watered down the regulations on protecting endangered and threatened species. Its actions are a thumb-your-nose response at the United Nations report in May that warned of a million species of plants and animals facing extinction worldwide and in our backyard because of climate change and habitat destruction. Among the endangered are the familiar poster animals: elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, whales, gorillas and chimpanzees. But even more critical is the global threat to insects and a million other humble species — the ones we depend on for food, fuel, fiber and pharmaceuticals, for cleaning our air, water and soils, and for maintaining the life support systems of the planet.

The problem, explains The Economist, a conservative magazine dedicated to smart capitalism, is the myopia of the short-term economic view. For example, since Brazil’s President Jair Bolsinaro “took office in January, trees have been disappearing at a rate of two Manhattans each week.” Bolsinaro would oppose the one-time spending of Brazil’s cash capital as economic suicide. Yet, in the Brazilian Amazon, he is promoting the one-time spending of the forest’s natural capital — its trees and their associated soils, plants and animals. It’s a formula for both economic and environmental suicide.

The U.S. administration is doing likewise to serve short-term industry interests — the one-time use of land and off-shore areas for mining, minerals and energy extraction. God help the species that is just hanging on but deemed to be in the way of economic development. Take the Monarch butterfly. Its population has crashed in the past 20 years by 90% because of climate change and the steady loss of its milkweed habitat to expanding agriculture. The monarch, like many species, is doubly accursed under the new regulations for having a wide geographic range. So, the twisted reasoning has it, the monarch’s habitat in any one area does not need to be protected. Ditto Kansas’ Lesser prairie chicken. And the North American wolverine, a small, bearlike species with only about 300 individuals scattered across the northern Rocky Mountains, the northern Cascades and parts of the Southwest. National Geographic estimates the wolverine will disappear from a third of its range in the next 30 years because of climate change.

Whoa! Climate change? It’s barred from the environmental calculus by the new regulations, which will write off sea-ice dependent species such as seals, walrus, polar bears, arctic fox, whales, caribou and other mammals. But, hey, no worries. The administration has assured us that climate change is just a Chinese government hoax.

Politicos and bureaucrats who defend this new assault on the environment typically begin their pronouncements with, “Well, I’m not a scientist, but I think …” OK, here’s the memo. Step one: Ask a scientist. Start with the ones at the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who haven’t yet left or been silenced. Step two: Listen to them. Follow their expert advice on the protection and conservation of endangered and threatened species and their habitats.

The bald eagle is our national bird, enshrined in the Great Seal of the United States, its talons clutching 13 arrows and an olive branch with 13 leaves. In the 1900s it almost went the way of the dodo. Two factors saved it: the banning of DDT, after decades of industry denial, delay and vilification of Rachel Carson; and the tough regulations in the Endangered Species Act, now emasculated. Let’s hope that our children won’t have to consult the presidential seal just to see a bald eagle.



Public Assault on Science Continues at our own Peril

I write regular op-ed pieces for the Lawrence Journal- World on science, science policy and the environment.  

Public Assault on Science Continues at our own Peril

October 16, 2019

By Leonard Krishtalka

With the deluge of news from the current impeachment turmoil in Washington, one could be excused for missing the continuing assault on science from the administration and its supporters.  In August, in explaining his no-exception anti-abortion stance, Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King claimed that without incest and rape the human population would have become extinct.  Here are his exact words during an Aug. 14 appearance in Urbandale, Iowa: “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest?  Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?”

Well, the one-word answer is, “yes.”  The one-sentence, sing-a-long answer is: “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book …”  Rep. King should hit the pause button on his unschooled rhetoric to read a primer on population biology.  Studies estimate that an average of 5% of all rapes result in pregnancy, and 4.5% in the birth of a child.  Mathematically, that would be insignificant in sustaining the growth of the human population, at least during the past 200,000 years, the age of the oldest known fossil remains of Homo sapiens from Africa.  

Rep. King should also study up on the incest taboo, essentially hard-wired in our consciousness.  In practice, it is humanity’s most basic moral law, more universally obeyed than the six moral commandments of the ten in scripture..  Incest is similarly taboo in nature, observed by animals from beetles to chimpanzees.  Ditto flowering plants, many of which have evolved elaborate mechanisms to fertilize only the non-incestuous pollen.

Biology primer #2 for Rep. King: Incest is a recipe for wholesale genetic malformation.  In humans it produces severe birth defects or early death among 45% of children.  Rather than growing healthy populations for the past 200,000 years, any significant level of incest would have had the opposite effect, drastically diminishing the size and “genetic fitness” of the population.  It’s hard to be polite about this:  It takes more than ignorance of biology to condone rape and incest with a clueless claim for population growth.

Unlike Rep. King, Exxon and Shell don’t need primers in science.  They need primers in social responsibility.  Their science is so good that by the 1980s they already knew that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels would cause global warming, climate change, and environmental havoc.  We learn from The Guardian that Exxon’s internal documents predicted a doubling of CO2 concentration by 2060 to 560 parts per million and an increase in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Centigrade.  Shell scientists shaved 30 years off that forecast, saying that by 2030 the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would break apart, sea levels would rise 15–18 feet, and specific ecosystems would disappear—all told “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.”  Exxon tried to be more reassuring: CO2 doubling and climate change would not be “as significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine.” 

For the next 35 years, Exxon and Shell, in the face of their own research, were adamant climate-change deniers, even when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was issuing report after report with the same warnings.  This is familiar, poisoned terrain.  Tobacco companies buried their own findings for decades while denying the smoking-cancer link.  Chemical companies covered up the deadly effects of DDT on wildlife to deny the series of silent springs.  With climate change, the administration is still in denial, despite its Department of Defense’s national security fears: war and famine brought on by global warming.

Speaking of Silent Spring, scientists at Cornell reported in September that America has lost three billion individual birds from our skies, lands and waters since 1970, a whopping 29% decrease.  If birds were stocks on the Dow Jones, we’d call it the depths of a 50-year ecological depression.  Particularly hard hit are grassland birds in Kansas and the Great Plains, victims of habitat loss.  Three bird species account for 14% of the decrease:  the House Sparrow, European Starling, and Rock Pigeon.  Bird watchers suspect that the administration isn’t in mourning.  All three species were immigrants from other countries.