I’m a Teaching Assistant for an Intro to Physical Anthropology course and during their last week of classes before the final, we have a lab activity set up for them where we bring in fossil hominin casts and ask them to look at the variation between them, their similarities, why they may or may not be directly within our evolutionary lines, etc.  We do this by setting up stations around the lecture hall.  As I was watching the students pick up the casts and comment on their weird appearances compared to a modern human skull, how their teeth are different, how their face shape is so unlike us, I realized that I have completely taken experiences like this for granted.  Not all colleges or institutions have the funds to purchase these skull casts.  They are surprisingly expensive (at least compared to what grad students are paid!) and I have placed some of them on my Christmas list because I cannot afford them, unfortunately to no avail.

However, building off my last blog post concerning the importance of 3D modeling as a conservation tool and also as a way to access otherwise inaccessible artifacts, most of these famous fossil hominins have 3D models somewhere on the internet.  As we increase the ability and accessibility of these online spaces, it creates a unique arena where instructors can gain access to materials that otherwise not in their department’s budget.  People are starting to understand the benefits of open source data, giving others the chance to voice their opinions about those data that would otherwise be hidden away in someone’s lab or office.  Although departments may not have the means to obtain some teaching materials, the college or university at large may.  Most institutions have 3D printers on their campus.  LEADR has one that we can use, as does the MSU library.


Screenshot of a paranthropus 3D where you can download the model and make your own print from arfricanfossils.org.

Because of the increasing amount of data sharing, there is the possibility to 3D print the teaching tools that may otherwise cost over $200.  A quick scan of a cast-producing company showed that the cheapest full-scale fossil hominid cranial cast (not including the mandible as that is much more expensive to include) was $195 while the average was around $280, ranging up to $305 for the most expensive cast.  This means that getting even a “greatest hits” collection

(such as A. afarensis – “Lucy”, Paranthropus, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Archaic Homo sapiens skulls) would already cost over $1000.  The push for open access and data sharing has lead to 3D models of most of the ancient hominins being housed somewhere online where it is free and easy to download the data required to make a 3D print.  Although not a painted cast that looks like the color and texture of the fossil, these 3D prints acquaint students with the same information as the plastic casts while spending considerably less money in the process.

3D print of a Homo naledi mandible and maxilla fragment. Originally on the 3D Printers’ Online Store website.


Although this example is tailored to something that I face in my own classes and with materials and information with which I am familiar, this concept is applicable across many fields where physical and material culture are studied.  The use of 3D data is not just for making things that look cool and that you can rotate on the a computer screen.  Data sharing that allows researchers and even non-researchers to visualize something that otherwise they may not ever see in their lifetime or even see replicas of due to the high cost of academic and teaching materials.  As technology advances everyday, items such as 3D printers become more common and more alluring for research institutions, which results with those who disseminate knowledge being granted access to methods of teaching that have been unavailable until the past decade.