Sometimes it takes the very latest technology to answer some of the oldest questions. This week, researchers announced the discovery of an incredibly rare, 2-million-year-old skull in South Africa that is a cousin species to “Homo erectus,” the famous extinct archaic human from the Pleistocene era.
The only problem? The cranium, which was encased in a significant amount of sediment, was in more than 300 pieces. Fortunately, the team was able to turn to the latest 3D-scanning technology, a tool called the Artec Space Spider, to painstakingly reconstruct the skull. The process, which took hundreds of hours, helped them discover insights they may not have otherwise come to light — such as clues in the teeth that suggest the subject’s likely diet.
“During the process of removing the individual pieces from the sediment, I scanned the cranium so that if any pieces unexpectedly dislodged, there was a high resolution of record of their location,” Jesse Martin, a graduate researcher at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “Even after manual reconstruction, there were some elements of the cranium that could not be manually attached — either because the contact point was too small, or a tiny part of the edges had been lost.”
Putting together a fossilized object broken into 300 pieces isn’t the same as, say, putting together a 300-piece puzzle, Martin said. After millions of years in the ground, fossils (including this one) are often discolored and stained. This can hide underlying anatomical features important for analysis. Being able to 3D scan an object while it’s still in the ground also provides valuable clues about its context — the same way modern detectives would work to preserve a crime scene so as to not lose any of the important details.
Software tools developed by Artec 3D helped solve these problems, enabling the researchers to not only reconstruct the skull (and remove its discoloration) but also to “reverse-engineer” details of the excavation site. The 3D scanning is additionally crucial because it can allow detailed fossil records to be analyzed by researchers all over the world in scenarios in which a fossil is not authorized to be removed from its country of origin.
“The fields of paleoanthropology and archaeology are only really starting to use 3D scanning to improve our excavation, reconstruction, and analytical methods,” Martin said. “Archaeology and paleoanthropology are inherently destructive sciences, and so the 3D technology is especially well-positioned to solve the problem of diligent record keeping and data acquisition. To put it plainly, you can’t excavate and reconstruct the same fossil twice.”
A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
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