If you're excited about last week's announcement of a new human-like species discovered in South Africa, you can get your hands on the specimens — sort of. You can print your own 3D replicas of Homo naledi and several other important hominin finds.
Anthropologist Lee Berger and his colleagues found 91 specimens, which they say represent a newly discovered species named Homo naledi, in a South African cave system. They published their findings in the open access journal E-Life, but they also scanned the fossils and uploaded the digital copies to Morphosource, where you can download them and print your own hominid skull fragments on a standard desktop 3D printer.
You can print your own 3D models of specimens from several other hominin finds, and anthropologist Kristina Killgrove provided a handy list of links on her Forbes contributor page. Most are in .stl or .ply formats. If you don't have your own 3D printer, you can search 3DHubs for access to one in your area.
"The Rising Star Expedition's opening up of information so soon after discovery is unprecedented and very, very welcome. In the past, fellow researchers and teachers would have to wait multiple years — and pay hundreds of dollars — to get a cast of the new fossil. And wait many more years for all the data to be opened up," wrote Killgrove. That's still the case for most of the hominin fossils in museum research collections around the world, but as 3D printing becomes more widespread — and as the push for open access to scientific data gains more ground — it could become more common.
For students and educators, that means hands-on work in the classroom with the latest discoveries. "I spent much of the day of the announcement printing, which meant I was able to bring the fragments in to my Human Osteology course almost immediately after the to talk to the students about what had been discovered," wrote Killgrove. "While not all of them were interested in the find, the ones that geeked out with me made my frenzied printing of them worthwhile."
And for researchers, it's a new tool for scientific debate.
The Homo naledi find stirred up some controversy among paleoanthopologists, because not everyone is convinced that Homo naledi is a new species. Anthropologist Jeffrey Schwarz wrote an editorial for Newsweek pointing out that the Homo naledi specimens looked more like another genus of hominids, Austalopithecus, than any member of the genus Homo. Another anthropologist, Tim White, contended that Homo naledi actually looked more like a "primitive, small" version of Homo erectus — the first early human ancestors to have body proportions similar to ours and probably the creator of the first stone handaxes.
Researcher John Hawks, part of the team that found Homo naledi, rebutted those critiques in a recent blog post, and the whole debate is a great example of science in action. Hawks presented his data and his conclusions. Other scientists questioned his conclusions and presented their own ideas. Hawks responded by explaining his conclusions and providing access to the data so that anyone who wanted to question it could look for themselves — and that's the nuts and bolts of how scientific arguments are supposed to work.
Top image: John Hawks via Wikimedia Commons