With New Data Come New Responsibilities

Engare Sero footprint layer
By Kevin Hatala
February 01, 2013

The nature of paleoanthropology is changing in many ways. Leafing through recent issues of the Journal of Human Evolution or AJPA, it’s amazing how many research projects are using three-dimensional models, GIS, and countless other technologies to collect and analyze digital paleontological data in ways that were never before possible. Yet the importance of these new technologies extends well beyond the immediate data they provide to the authors of these papers. Sure, it is certainly exciting when geometric morphometrics can be used to analyze the three-dimensional shape of a CT-based reconstruction of a fossilized skull, and present a quantitative argument for its taxonomic affinity. But that same type of work has also opened a whole new realm of opportunity (and responsibility) for preservation and public outreach.

For the past several decades, if one were lucky, they might have been able to travel to a museum in order to see a small exhibit on human evolution, with a couple casts of Neanderthal skulls and maybe a picture of Lucy’s skeleton. Now, museums around the world are launching major initiatives to make digital data accessible to the general public, allowing anyone to virtually ‘hold in their hands’ precious hominin fossils. You can take a look at the Smithsonian Human Origins Program’s 3D collection for a great example.

Even within our field, researchers are reaping the rewards of digital data. A graduate student might be able to analyze a 3D model of an Australopithecus skull from the confines of their office, rather than having to worry about raising funds for a trip to Ethiopia. The longevity of these digital data is probably greater (or at least more secure) than the specimens themselves. Virtual models cannot be accidentally dropped on the floor, or altered by the wear and tear of several pairs of calipers each year. And in some cases, the original data themselves are not suited for typical curation processes.

Over the past few years, I have taken part in excavations of fossilized hominin footprint sites at Ileret, Kenya and Engare Sero, Tanzania. It is essential that we document these sites in such a way that other researchers, both today and in future generations, can continue to explore and learn new things from them. Yet it is simply impossible to remove these footprints from the ground and file them in the shelved collections of museums. And after these delicate trace fossils are exposed by excavation, they are immediately susceptible to erosion and degradation. We do create traditional rubber molds and plaster casts, but these are similarly subject to their own range of risks and limitations. In response to these issues, we have also adopted a new approach, through collaborations with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization team (see videos of their work), in order to digitally document and preserve these invaluable fossil footprint sites. Using rapidly-growing technologies of photogrammetry, we are producing 3D models of individual fossilized footprints, but also rendering in 3D each fossil footprint layer in its entirety. We plan to build digital archives through which other researchers can access these fossils, in a way that directly represents what we experience in our excavations. They will be able to view each footprint layer in its original context, and virtually move around the site to gather their own measurements in order to conduct their own analyses. We envision 3D recreations of the sites being utilized in museum displays, and online, so that the general public can also experience these wonderfully exciting discoveries. We are only at the beginning of this process, and we have much work ahead of us, but it has already been rewarding to think of the influence that these projects could have on others down the road.

The progress that others have already made in promoting the accessibility of these data both within our field and, even more importantly, to the general public, is very encouraging. It will be exciting to see the ways in which our field can continue to grow as digital data become even more commonplace, and influence new innovations in both research and education.