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Materialise’s Mimics 3D Modeling Software Helps Solve 430,000-Year-Old Murder Mystery

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cranium mainYou’ve probably read or heard about what are called “DNA Exonerations”–those instances when modern DNA testing technology has been instrumental in reversing wrongful convictions. According to the Innocence Project, “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice,” there have been 330 exonerations based on DNA testing since the first one in 1989.

But what about the real perpetrators? The Innocence Project says that, in 162 of the exonerations, the actual offenders were identified. It really is remarkable–the extent to which modern technology has the capacity to right grievous wrongs whether in the recent past or, say, 430,000 years ago.

That’s right: a different kind of modern technology has helped scientists solve a crime-related mystery from the Pleistocene Era (it began around 1.8 million years ago and ended about 11,700 years ago at the onset of the last Ice Age). 3D technology giant, Materialise’s Mimics software helped archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and other specialists create an extremely accurate 3D model of stone-age human’s skull in order to determine the cause of death.

The skull fragments were found by archaeologists in a cave in the northern part of Spain. Certain characteristics of the skull told them that it had belonged to an early human that came before the Neanderthals (a subspecies of Homo Sapiens that became extinct between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago). It took several years for the 52 fragments of the skull–each about 1 inch across at most–to be reconstructed. When the reconstruction was completed, scientists were surprised at what they found: there were two holes in the forehead of the long-since-deceased person and they were simply the result of missing fragments.

Fig 1. Stratigraphy of the Sima de los Huesos site (modified from Arsuaga et al. [21]). The hominin bones were recovered in Lithostratigraphic Unit 6 (LU-6) dated to c. 430ka [21]. This unit is composed of pure red clays, filtering into the conduit system from overlying soils with little or no lateral transport, and very low velocity of sedimentation (decantation by dripping water) [23]. The figure also shows a detailed image of Cr-17 during its excavation at the site. Note the pure red clay that covers the cranial bones (partially cleaned in situ to enhance visualization) and the typical in situ postmortem (fossil diagenetic) fractures of the cranial vault. Photo credit: Javier Trueba (Madrid Scientific Films). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0126589.g001 Sala N, Arsuaga JL, Pantoja-Pérez A, Pablos A, Martínez I, Quam RM, et al. (2015) Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0126589. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0126589

Using Materialise’s Mimics software, a team of researchers at the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución Comportamiento Humanos (Joint Center of Evolution and Human Behavior), in Madrid, were able to literally piece together the evidence of what was most certainly a 430,000-year-old murder. The victim, whose skull scientists named–without sentiment–”Cr-17” (“Cr” for “cranium”), was probably a young adult male who died from blunt force trauma.

“Cr-17,” discovered in a site with the terribly sinister name “Sima de los Huesos” (“the Pit of the Bones”), was evidently fractured very close to the time of death, so the wounds were without question mortal. Notably, according to paleoanthropologists, cranial trauma wasn’t that unusual among Pleistocene-era hominids, so the researchers wondered whether the fractures were accidental or deliberately inflicted. In order to attempt to solve the mystery, they used CT scanning and then Mimics software to convert the 1,108 layers or slices into an incredibly detailed 3D model. Once the model was produced, the research team measured the angles of the fractures, analyzed the shapes of each hole in the skull and the trajectory of impact for each of the fractures.

Mimics was used to create a precise 3D model of the cranium to analyze the fractures resulting from blunt force trauma.

Mimics was used to create a precise 3D model of the cranium to analyze the fractures resulting from blunt force trauma.

Based on the location, size, and shape of each fracture, the researchers concluded that the same lethal object was used to create both fractures and that assailant and victim were face-to-face when the blows were dealt. You may be wondering, “Was it an attack by a wild animal that killed this ancient human?” but the investigative team concluded that the wounds were not compatible with ones that would be apparent in the event of an attack by a carnivore; that is, the holes are definitely not punctures produced by teeth.

The good news is that cutting-edge technology is now more invaluable than ever in its capacity to detect and even put to right old–or even ancient–wrongs. The bad news is that it seems we humans and our ancient ancestors have always had a propensity toward violence.

“One implication of the study,” explained Binghamton University (New York) paleoanthropologist Rolf Quam, “is that murder is a very ancient human behavior.”

It seems that insatiable curiosity is another as the collaborative effort to solve (in a way) the oldest recorded incident of homicide was a high-tech, global effort of sorts.

Discuss this story in the 3D Printing and a Murder Mystery forum thread on

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