A 3D-printed Homo naledi skull!

H. naledi

Homo naledi has caused a lot of excitement and intrigue in palaeoanthropology and evolutionary biology since its discovery in 2013 by Lee Berger and his team in South Africa. This hominid had many of the characteristics we normally associate with humanoid species that lived around 2 million years ago, having a small brain and curved fingers. But recent analysis has concluded that the fossils could be as young as 200,000 years old – placing it at approximately the same time as early Homo sapiens. So rather than being an ancestor of modern humans, we might surmise that these individuals overlapped with the appearance of our first H. sapiens ancestors. It is not too unreasonable to assume that our appearance might have played a significant part in the extinction of this relic species, given that so many other extinctions coincide with the appearance of modern man.

I have wanted to get my hands on a few casts of humanoid species for years but have always found them too expensive to justify given the small amount of human evolution content typically covered by students in secondary school science curricula and syllabi. Luckily, the discoverers of H. naledi made the fossil scans publicly available, going against the field’s normal habit of protecting the blue prints whilst they carry out tests and so on. I looked up the codes and forwarded them to our tech guy who duly set out to print what resulted in a beautifully detailed H. naledi skull cast. Twenty four hours later I was face to face with Nigel, Nora or whatever the students decide to name him/her.

Surprisingly small yet still recognisibly human-like in form, the cast has made an excellent addition to the biology classroom shelf alongside a model of a double helix and a fox skull found in nearby Baneasa forest. Students love visual aids and will enjoy exploring the skull without having to worry too much about being careful. It took a few hours to print and cost the equivalent of less than five pounds. Obviously the 3D printer was expensive and should be taken into consideration for total cost but now I know a bit more about this amazing technology I will be on the look-out for the codes to print similarly interesting artifacts. Perhaps we will print more bones and get students to assemble the parts. That would be very cool.

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