The Future of Paleontology in a Global, Digital World.

On the shelf immediately to the right of my computer, I have a small collection of skull casts. In chronological order– Sahelanthropus tchadensis (6-7 million years old), Australopithecus afarensis (3.2 million years old, the great Lucy, whose story led me to anthropology/paleoanthropology), Homo habilis (1.9 million years old, KNM-ER 1813), and H. erectus (1-1.7 million years old, Sangiran 17).


This is me, with S. tchadensis

These casts aren’t the type of thing you’d get a Toys R Us (if such a place still existed). These casts are from Bone Clones, and aren’t the type of thing that you’d look at in 7th grade when learning basic human anatomy or osteology. These are museum quality replicas. Meaning the original fossils were either casted in plaster or, with more recent specimens, 3d scanned and printed.

They are identical in every way to the original fossils with the exception that they are made of resin rather than minerals. The collection of four cost me well over $1,000.

As well they should be. These are iconic fossils, and property of the national museums and universities of the countries in which they are found. They are preciously fragile and only available to select researchers.

When you go to a museum, Bone Clones casts are very likely what you are looking at. These casts are painstakingly reproduced with resin made to replicate the feel of bone (which fossils are not), and hand-painted to replicate the look of the original material.

Bone Clones exists to provide this service, and they are excellent at it. Their materials are suitable not just for teaching purposes, but also for research purposes. As an undergraduate, part of my honors thesis was originally going to involve measuring casts like these, and if it had, my findings would still have been just as scientifically valid.

As technology moves along, things change. Fossils are casted in plaster more seldomly, and are more frequently 3d scanned. A good friend of mine did her masters thesis applying photogrammetry (using a series of 2 dimensional photographs to build 3 dimensional models) to novel artifacts.

And other friends of mine now own 3d printers. We can hypothetically print out 3 dimensional, research quality reproductions of fossils.

The four heads I have staring at me as I type this are for display and inspiration. These things have been studied by countless researchers who are far more talented than I’ll ever be. They’re research quality…but I don’t need them for research.

There is a growing push in paleontology for researchers to make their 3d scans publicly available–or at least available to other researchers. Just today I read this article on different sides of this debate.

And I have to say that I still have mixed feelings.

I do not believe in gatekeeping for its own sake. Allowing qualified researchers access to research materials is what drives science, and freer access to 3d scans is exactly that.

Arguments are made that researchers should not withhold their scans in the hopes that they will lead them to future research–research that an inquiring scientist might be about to stumble upon. I can see the logic, but I don’t agree.

The same philosophy that leads me to say that once a given project published and the researcher has published with it all their methodology, scans should be included, is the same philosophy that leads me to publish all of my videos and research materials/techniques publicly available.

I want more researchers to come after me. To look at what I’ve done and either build upon it or use it as a template. If you want to make documentaries, I want you to be able to watch mine and see in the credit roll how I did it.

But…my films are not fossils found in impoverished countries whose universities may be largely driven by the research opportunities their wilderness provides. I do not get to choose how Kenya decides to move forward in this growing tide of open source research materials. Their National Museums make money from selling access to specimens to qualified researchers.

The argument that forcing them to allow free-access to foreign/white researchers is colonialist is absolutely legitimate.

I don’t have the answers here. But I do see where things are going, however slowly.

Perhaps organization membership will dictate access. Perhaps scans made by the National Museums of Kenya will be sold to universities, who will then make them freely available to their researchers.

It is a difficult question to parse out. On the one hand, I do not (nor will I ever) believe in hoarding material strictly to capitalize on someone’s idea…and the notion of refusing access on the fear that I may be scooped on an idea I’ll never even have is not something that will ever factor into my identity.

But it is coming. The push to open-source is there, and it’s growing. Open source access is being built up rapidly for other zoological collections in museums. Journals often have a policy in place for researchers to publish their scans along with the rest of their data, though these are policies that aren’t always enforced.

But it’s more nuanced than that. There is a balance between “anybody” having access and denying access to highly trained experts who can contribute novel observations to our understanding of the natural world. There is also a difference between capitalizing on access for its own sake versus capitalizing on access for the sake of feeding families in your country.

For my part, I think access should be as easy to obtain as possible. Maybe that means that I have to pay the National Museum of Kenya for 3d scans. But a balance has to be found. I’m not entitled to the antiquities of other countries, and we’re going to have to find a way to mitigate that going forward.


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