High-tech meets prehistoric in U lab

The anthropology department is using advanced imaging for research.

Than Tibbetts

John Soderberg’s glamour shots may be artsy and innovative, but you won’t find them on the cover of a fashion magazine.

Click and drag to rotate skull
Anthropology coordinator John Soderberg created this VR with the imaging equipment in his evolutionary anthropology lab. The movie is created by taking hundreds of photos and precisely different angles. The image is of a cast of the skull of a Homo ergaster boy who was approximately 12 years old more than 1.5 million years ago. The skeleton was found in Kenya in 1984 and is considered one of the most complete skeletons.
Source: John Soderberg, evolutionary anthropology lab

His bone-filled anthropology lab – perhaps the most organized cemetery around – uses advanced imaging techniques to offer insights into lives lived long ago.

From the cast of a boy’s skull 1.5 million years old to wounds inflicted on animal bones, Soderberg’s “studio” allows him to look back in time with a different perspective.

And soon the anthropology department will have an online catalog of these images that will allow students to view the bones without having to use limited lab time.

“A lot of the time technology is, you know, supposed to help learning but really makes it more complicated,” Soderberg said.

He uses two scanners, one uses a laser and the other uses a small needle to feel an object. He also uses a larger camera rig that creates virtual reality movies of any object up to 400 pounds.

The scanners allow anthropologists to look at a section of a bone as though they were analyzing a computer model of a riverbed, he said.

“It leads you to see things in a different way,” he said.

Anthropologists look at cuts on animal bones to determine whether the animal was killed by another animal or by early humans, which offers insight into both the lifestyles of the hunter and the hunted.

The imaging techniques have a broader application than just bones. Anything from pottery to car parts could benefit from the imaging techniques, and sculptors and engineers have already expressed interest.

Soderberg said artists could create 3-D models of artwork and use 3-D printers to create the pieces.

Research assistant Hayley Jirasek said she used the scanners to analyze Southwest American pottery and will

move on to skulls, leg bones, stone tools and ceramics this year.

Similar technology is being used at the North Dakota State University Archaeology Technologies Laboratory, and Jirasek said they will be attending a conference on technology and anthropology there in April.

Jirasek said they might form a research partnership with NDSU as well.

Soderberg said using the technology might allow him to maximize teaching and research by allowing researchers and students access to the same images.

Details that might seem mundane, such as the slope of the points on monkey teeth, can be analyzed more mathematically than the “this-one-looks-more-pointy” method, he said.

Slopes of teeth can be correlated with what vegetation a monkey ate, an important aspect of life that anthropologists study.

The project might also open avenues for more collaboration among departments.

“I’m hoping other departments will be interested in this technology as well,” Soderberg said.