Rapid Prototyping Reveals Evolutionary Clues

Over at Scientific American’s Observations blog, Kate Wong has an interesting piece about paleoanthropologists using 3D printers to help recreate the skeleton of one of humanity’s ancestors.

Australopithecus sediba, a “nearly two million-year-old” member of Homo Sapien’s evolutionary lineage was discovered at the Malapa Fossil Site in South Africa.  Like most fossils, the bones of this species were encased in stones, which made the task of excavating them tedious. 

Lee Berger, the project leader at Malapa, and his wife, Jakie Smilg, began using a micro CT scanner to determine whether or not some of the larger blocks of stone recovered from the site contained bones deep within their structure. To Berger and Smilg’s delight, they did discover bones  but excavating them was going to be difficult.

Rather than using conventional methods of excavation, the couple fed the models created by their CT scans into a 3D printer to accurately reproduce the bones hidden deep within the rock.  This use of 3D printing allowed the “researchers to observe and study the bone without ever removing it from the rock it was embedded in.”