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Desert Skull

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"(...I'm just a pile of bleached bones. I can't talk.)"

Whenever a show features or references a desert, savannah or other barren land, odds are good that a bovine cranium will be involved to set the mood. As is often the case, the rest of the skeleton goes unseen.

Often accompanied by cacti.

Compare Ribcage Ridge, a sister trope.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The opening scene of GUN×SWORD has Van looking down at an animal skull in the desert and questioning why the creature isn't still alive for him to eat.

  • Shows up in many Georgia O'Keefe paintings.
  • Arthur Rothstein's photo series documenting the dust bowl in South Dakota included several of these. It was a scandal at the time because it was pretty obviously the same skull every time (the series was part of a government program documenting the drought). According to the photographer he was just moving a skull he found around the same small area to capture the shadows differently.

    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman (1987): The desert beyond the edges of the Sangtee Empire slave mining operation on "Hope's End" is littered with skulls and skeletons making attempts to escape out into the desert a less appealing option that it otherwise might be. There are also a few within the mining camp, but not many since the deceased are fed to the scavenger worms.
  • Tintin: In "The Crab With the Golden Claws", Tintin and Haddock realize they're lost in the middle of the Sahara Desert when Snowy finds a bone... that came from the skeleton of a camel, just to drive home how dire their situation is.

    Film — Animated 
  • The owl mariachi band from Rango stood on one of these while singing about Rango's journey.
  • On An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Tiger runs into a buffalo skeleton that seems to come to life when he's not looking. Turns out it's being manipulated by native mice, who then capture Tiger.
  • The Lion King: As Simba returns to the Pridelands, he finds it riddled with wildebeest skeletons to show how Scar's rule has ruined the land. At the end, as Simba returns to power, there's a brief shot of a skull being washed away by the rain, to symbolize the end of the old regime.
  • Cars featured a variation of this: since all animals in their world are also vehicles, in the desert surrounding Radiator Springs, there appear to be rusted-up car parts lying among the rocks and cacti.
  • Fantasia - the 'Rite of Spring' segment shows the last of the dinosaurs shuffling into the desert dust - after which the camera pans to and closes in on the skull of the mighty T-Rex.

    Film — Live Action 
  • The New Land: Robert and Arvid get a vivid illustration of just how deep they're in trouble in the Thirsty Desert when they come across the bones of a would-be miner.
  • The Plow That Broke the Plains, a documentary short about how the Great Plains became the Dust Bowl, includes a shot of a bleached, broken cow skull lying on cracked and dried-out land.
  • The Winning of Barbara Worth: In fact it's an entire dessicated cow skeleton that Worth sees, underlining the aridity of this part of the desert.
  • In Star Wars, on Tatooine C-3PO passes by a skull of Krayt Dragon.
  • 1946 documentary short Facing Your Danger shows the river rafters on the Colorado finding what appears to be a human skeleton.

  • One of the oldest pop-cultural examples comes from A Study in Scarlet. Yes, that A Study In Scarlet, which lends almost half its pagespace to a Cowboy Episode:
    "Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance... Here and there there are scattered white objects which glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men. For fifteen hundred miles one may trace this ghastly caravan route by these scattered remains of those who had fallen by the wayside."

  • Voltaire referenced this in "Fear and Anguish"
From over the range that is where we found
Scattered on the ground, fifty heads of steer.
But what's real queer;
We searched all around
No other part was found!

    Newspaper Comics 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons has the gambado, a monster originally from the Fiend Folio, that disguises itself as this trope. When revealed, they appear as one-legged humanoids with sharp claws and either an animal or human skull for a head.

    Toys, Games, Collectibles 
  • The Matchbox/Revell kit of the WW2 German Panzer III tank comes with a display base to mount the completed tank kit; it depicts a North African desert sand-dune, with the tank posed as breasting the crest of the sand. Just to emphasise the point this is an Afrika Korps panzer, there is a bleached animal skull to set artistically into the modelled sand.

    Video Games 

    Web Comics 
  • Coyote Ville has one in Ed, who can converse and interact with the rest of the cast.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

  • Check out any zoo's exhibits of desert reptiles or arachnids. Odds are very good that at least one hollow ceramic Desert Skull will be on display, as the den for a lizard, snake, scorpion, or tarantula.

Alternative Title(s): Cow Cranium


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