Geo Week News

February 17, 2016

Scanning for Human Ancestors

homo naledi fossils (Source: Wits University)

The Rising Star cave system in South Africa made headlines in 2010 with the announcement that researchers, led by Witwatersrand University professor Lee Berger, had discovered two skeletons of a hominid species previously unknown to science. In September, 2015, the team discovered a new species of human relative in the same cave system and named it homo naledi. The next step, of course, was to scan the area to find more specimens.

The Dinaledi chamber of the system, where the new species was found, presented significant challenges. The chamber is shallow, small, and at the time risked flooding due to recent rains in the area. This made it difficult to port traditional terrestrial laser scanners in. The team used a handheld, high-precision scanner, the Artec Eva, which “provided the necessary portability and ease-of-use to make documentation possible high resolution and full texture.”

Incredibly, the team was able to recover 1,550 specimens in only five weeks using the handheld scanning technology.

The team within the cave would scan the desired area, produce a visualization of fossil locations, and send that information to a team above ground who provided further expertise and direction.

“I was amazed at how simple and accurate such a high-level technology could be in less than ideal conditions,” said Ashley Kruger, paleontologist at Wits University. “The team learned how to use the scanners in just under an hour. Using this technology significantly sped up the entire recovery process, reducing some tasks that would have taken hours to minutes. With projects like this, the bones have to be documented on their own as well as in relation to the excavation site. Normally, this involves manually recording fossil locations and cross referencing with an established grid.”

“As with any preservation project, the environment is forever changed the moment it is touched,” said Artyom Yukhin, president and CEO of Artec 3D. “3D scanning technology is allowing teams like this one to operate with the confidence that data will be captured in high fidelity, before the site is compromised. Moreover, these projects can be completed more quickly. With 3D scanning, a recovery project that would have taken decades can be accomplished in mere weeks.”

The Rising Star project is still underway. Look for published work on the use of 3D data, technology and methods within the year.

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