Sep 21, 2015 | By Tess

Just weeks ago it was announced that a new species was discovered that is likely a part of the human family tree. The so-named Homo naledi's bones were found in a cave not far from Johannesburg in South Africa, specifically in the Rising Star cave system, which scientists date back to about 3 million years.

Excitingly, the Homo naledi's bones, hidden for so long in the cave, are now accessible to anyone, as the team of anthropologists and palaeontologists that discovered them have made digital copies of the bones allowing for them to be 3D printed by anyone with a 3D printer or access to a 3D Printing Hub!

The Rising Star Expedition, led by anthropologist Lee Berger, uncovered approximately 1,400 bones and 140 teeth in the South African caves, which make up at least 15 partial skeletons of the possible new species. Judging by the skeletons, the researchers involved in the find have described the Homo naledi as a strange mix of ape-like pelvis and shoulder structure, not unlike those that lived 4 million years ago, and some Homo sapien traits, specifically in the feet, which were in existence only 200,000 years ago. The Homo naledi's skull, much smaller than that of the Homo sapien, would have housed a brain only half the size of the modern human's brain. Size-wise, the Rising Star team estimate the Homo naledi would have stood at about 1.5m tall, and could have weighed up to 45kg.


A first for this type of discovery, which normally remains relatively under wraps for years, the Rising Star Expedition have made all the information on their finds available through the open access journal E-Life. Not only that, however, they have also 3D scanned the found fossils and have uploaded the files (either .stl or .ply formats) onto Morphosource, where they can be downloaded and 3D printed on any desktop 3D printer.

This level of accessibility so soon after a discovery is unheard of and is exciting in many ways. For Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist at the University of West Florida, it allowed her to 3D print several pieces of the new species' skeleton within only 12 hours of its announcement on her laboratory's MakerBot 3D printer, and bring the pieces to her courses to show her students while discussing the newly discovered species.

For now, only a small number of fossils have been digitally scanned and have been made available to the public for 3D printing, likely for a number of reasons. Of course the practical aspect of digitally scanning the large number of fossils that exist in laboratories and storage facilities must be considered, as well as the fact that many companies who make casts of skeletons and fossils do not want the information to be freely available, bypassing them entirely.

Killgrove elaborates on the topic of open access information regarding fossils saying, "We are still approaching the question of open access of artifact and fossil scans in archaeology and paleooanthropology, which makes Rising Star the new benchmark for high-quality publication of all forms of data."

She has also compiled a list of hominin fossils that are available online to be 3D printed, some of which are listed below.

- Australopithecus africanus (Taung child skull) by RadioLab and the Chicago Field Museum – Thingiverse
- Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei (8 specimens) – AfricanFossils.org
- Homo naledi (91 specimens) by Rising Star – Morphosource
- Homo habilis (4 specimens) – AfricanFossils.org
- Homo erectus (12 specimens) - AfricanFossils.org
- Homo sapiens (4 specimens) – AfricanFossils.org

This is just another instance where 3D scanning and 3D printing technology have helped to make previously quite closed off and restricted information more accessible. The Rising Star team, in their impressive discovery of what is potentially a new species in our evolutionary trajectory, have also taken an important step in promoting such open access information, giving everyone the opportunity to recreate and 3D print their own Homo naledi fossils.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

 

 

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