From ancient beginnings to the future: replicating prehistoric fossils of hominids in 3D

Sep 09, 2014

Our last assignment at the TBI camp is to scan the fossils of hominids. Once found in Turkana Lake Basin, the original fossils are now stored at the National Museum of Kenya. The TBI lab have casts of these fossils and want to make the collection easily accessible to researchers and anyone interested in the subject through the African Fossils website.

We’re struggling to get access to the Museum’s collection – bureaucracy is getting in the way...

Herbivores, who lived about 2.5 million years ago

Hominids can be divided into two groups: Homo and Paranthropus; both have significant differences in diet. Paranthropus had bigger jaws, their teeth were flat, broad, adapted for chewing; they were clearly herbivores. The very dark skull was found in 1985 and therefore is referred to as the “Black Skull.” The fossils’ names have always been a headache for the scientists who named them: one French newspaper even published an article accusing the author of racism.

Scanning the black skull of Paranthropus aethiopicus.

‘Nutcracker Man’

The first Paranthropus boisei, H5 skull was found in 1959 by Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It is also known as the “Nutcracker Man.” This finding had great significance as it proved that our human ancestors originated from Africa, not Asia, which was the conventional thinking at that time. This finding marked the start of exciting paleoanthropological explorations in East Africa.

Exactly 10 years after the previous finding was made, Richard and Meave Leakey discovered, quite by chance, a second boisei: it was lying on the bank of a dry river, without teeth, but otherwise complete.

The species was called “boisei” after Charles Boise, the anthropologists’ benefactor.

Scanning the H5 cranium with Artec Spider.

Paranthropus boisei mandible, discovered in 1970.

Homo erectus – Turkana Boy

The year 1984 is remarkable for a very important finding: the first fossilized hominid skeleton, which belonged to a 1.6-million-year-old Homo Erectus, often referred to as the “Turkana Boy.”

The discovery of a matchbox-sized skull fragment was made by Kamoya Kimeu, on a Sunday morning in August 1984. As the excavation of the hillside progressed, more pieces of the skull, teeth, and then ribs began to be uncovered. It took about five years to excavate the complete specimen, and the excavation site grew as big as a house, but they never found the skeleton’s hands and feet. It took a while to find the skull; it was later discovered in the middle of tree roots – most probably, the bowl-shaped skull had collected water, and a seed started growing from it, eventually becoming a tree.

During those five years of excavations, many local children were got curious about what was going on and liked to join in. They helped the paleoanthropologists’ team a lot, and many years later they started working as archaeologists at TBI.

A 3D textured model of Turkana Boy’s skull.

A 3D model of Turkana Boy’s skull without texture.

Homo habilis, age approx. 1.9 million years

This small skull, 1813 ER, most probably feminine, was discovered in 1973. It was found in several pieces, but was restored in the field.

A 3D textured model of the 1813 ER skull.