Using 3D Printers to Unlock Secrets of Humanity’s Distant Past

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In 2013, recreational cavers Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker decided to squeeze themselves through an 8″ vertical chute for a distance of nearly 40 feet in the Rising Star cave system. For their efforts, which are making me feel claustrophobic simply recounting, they were rewarded with entry into an underground ‘room’ that contained an extraordinary number of bones.

By Paul H. G. M. Dirks et al - https://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09561, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43091783

By Paul H. G. M. Dirks et al – https://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09561, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43091783

Luckily, these men were not just daring but also intelligent and they recognized that the bones might be of interest. They reported their find and two years later an international research team was able to release a formal description, labeling it as representing a heretofore unknown member of the Homo species. The creatures represented by the 1,550 recovered skeletal fragments has been given the name Homo Naledi, because the word “naledi” means “star” in the local Sotho language, and they were discovered in the chamber of stars within the Rising Star cave system.

By Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, United Kingdom - Stringer, Chris (10september 2015). "The many mysteries of Homo naledi". eLife 4: e10627. DOI:10.7554/eLife.10627. PMC: 4559885. ISSN 2050-084X., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43130024

By Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum, United Kingdom – Stringer, Chris (10september 2015). “The many mysteries of Homo naledi”. eLife 4: e10627. DOI:10.7554/eLife.10627. PMC: 4559885. ISSN 2050-084X., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43130024

Because of the narrowness of the opening to the chamber, most members of the excavating team were women, something that is relatively rare. What is even more rare is that rather than holding all of the data to themselves, they decided to release it all online so that it would be accessible to anyone interested in seeing it. This is especially helpful as the cave system itself is nearly impossible to access, and it has meant that Jennifer Webb, a student of biological anthropology at Central Michigan University, can use that data as part of her senior thesis research.

By Lee Roger Berger research team - https://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43071595

By Lee Roger Berger research team – https://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43071595

For her project, Webb proposes to compare the fossils found in the Rising Star cave system to later fossils of homonids to get a better understanding of what relationships there might be that could help to place these newly discovered beings on a timeline of Homo history. She will be able to do this by recreating the fossils she needs in the 3D printing lab at CMU’s MakerBot Innovation Center. Rachel Caspari, Webb’s advisor and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, explained the importance of being able to print her own models from open source data:

“The site itself is almost impossible to get into. You would have to travel through difficult terrain and crawl through a gap about 8 inches wide. Hopefully, this [open-access] will change the culture and other scientists will operate with much more openness.”

The printers have generally been the playground for art and design students, but an increasingly wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds are becoming regular parts of the 3D print community at CMU. As the realization of their potential grows, more people are interested in utilizing them and luckily Larry Burditt, the chair of art and design, tries his best to create a welcoming atmosphere for all who are interested.

Jennifer Webb compares various types of teeth to determine non-metric characteristics. Photo credit: Richard Drummond, Jr

Jennifer Webb compares various types of teeth to determine non-metric characteristics. [Image: Richard Drummond, Jr]

Webb will be looking at the Naledi fossils in comparison with fossils from the oldest members of our own ancestors the Homo Sapiens, which date from approximately 100,000 years ago. While previous research has focused on comparing Naledi to older branches of the Homo family, Webb hopes that by examining the relationships between the bones from Naledi to newer members of the Homo group, she will be able to understand what relationships might exist, if any, to link Naledi in the chain of hominid history.

She also doesn’t plan on holding all of the information to herself, but rather hopes to be able to present her findings at the American Anthropological Association meeting this November. Discuss your thoughts on this amazing find and use of technology in the 3D Printing Homo Naledi forum over at 3DPB.com.

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