3D Scanning and 3D Printing Could Help Solve a Mystery of Human Migration

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[Image: Gerhard Weber, University of Vienna]

There are differing opinions about when humans started migrating out of Africa. One model shows us leaving between 40,000 and 80,000 years ago in a mass migration, while another belief is that we started moving out in smaller groups about 120,000 to 130,000 years ago. But a human-looking jawbone recently found in a cave in Israel could overturn both of those theories. The piece of jawbone, which still contains teeth, has been confirmed by researchers to be between 177,000 and 194,000 years old using three different dating methods. That means that humans may have been in the Middle East much earlier than we thought.

But is the bone actually human? That’s the question right now. It’s only a small chunk of bone, and that’s not a whole lot to go on, says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s possible that it could belong to some unknown relative of Homo Sapiens. The upper jawbone piece was discovered in 2002 by archaeologists excavating the Misliya cave along the slopes of Mount Carmel. Sophisticated tools and animal bones had already been found at the site, but this was the first humanlike bone that was found.

[Image: Rolf Quam, Binghamton University]

The archaeologists took 3D scans of the jaw and teeth and compared them to scans of other similar fossils from human relatives. Many features of the bone looked more human than Neanderthal, including the curvature of the palate and the location of the cheekbone and nasal cavity.

A digital reconstruction of the jawbone

“It has a lot of implications by saying the biological history of our species is much longer than we previously thought,” says Israel Hershkovitz from Tel Aviv University, the biological anthropologist who led the dental exam.

Not everyone is convinced that the jawbone is human, however. Jeffrey Schwartz, a physical anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh who wasn’t involved with the study, believes that the bone, particularly the shape of the teeth and the height of the cheekbone, lsook like something other than human.

“What is it? Who knows,” he says. “To me it represents a different kind of human relative. I think the more discoveries that we have, it keeps showing that our evolutionary path was very diverse.”

Hershkovitz welcomes all opinions, as long as they’re based on a close study of the fossil, so he wants to get the fossil into the hands of as many scientists as possible. He’s hoping to make one of the 3D scans of the fossil available for 3D printing, so that anthropologists around the world can see it up close and report their impressions to him.

He wouldn’t be the first to use 3D printing to open up a study to a wider group of people. It’s one of the greatest impacts 3D printing has had on the research world – a specimen such as the jawbone can be made freely available for 3D printing, enabling scientists and citizen scientists to study it up close and perhaps make a discovery or offer an insight that can unlock a key component of the research.

Using DNA to get a better idea whether the jaw is human or not isn’t a possibility, as the dry, hot conditions in Israel aren’t well-suited to preservation of DNA. The best bet, therefore, is likely going to be close study of the sample by a large number of scientists – and thanks to 3D printing, it’s easier than ever to bring together a wide range of scientific minds to work together on solving another piece of the human origins puzzle.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Source: The Verge]

 

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