Design is a funny, marvelous, sometimes unsettling thing — especially when evolution itself is the designer.
Take these six-decade-old pictures of skulls and bones. Seen in a certain light, and photographed for LIFE by the great Andreas Feininger, the bones of creatures as varied in size and temperament as fish, bats, elephants, hummingbirds and humans are eloquent totems, raising questions about life, death and what we ultimately leave behind.
In the end, though, perhaps the way that humans and our fellow creatures appear when seen at the most elemental level — in other words, how we look when literally stripped to the bone — says more about us than we’d like to admit. Even as these pictures summon thoughts that swing between the morbid and the exalted, one thing remains strikingly clear: in the right hands, bones are beautiful.
Many of these Feininger photographs appeared in the Oct. 6, 1952, issue of LIFE.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.