Print Your Own 3D Fossils

How the Rising Star Project Exemplifies Public Anthropology

“[The] Rising Star [Project] was the first time I’ve seen open science done successfully on such a large scale.”
– Becca Peixotto, CAS/MA ’13 and PhD student

By Katlin Chadwick, Writer/Editor, American University

On the day National Geographic announced the Homo naledi discovery, it also posted two scientific articles in an open-access online journal—giving anyone the ability to download the papers for free. As of September 15, 2015, the papers had been downloaded more than 14,000 times. Project Rising Star also uploaded about 90 high-quality 3-D scans of the fossils in an open-access database for anyone to download and reproduce on a 3-D printer.

Teachers and professors around the world are already printing out the fossils, bringing them to class, and integrating them into lesson plans.

“This changes the way we think about fossils,” says Becca Peixotto, one of the six scientists on the Rising Star excavation team and graduate of AU’s public anthropology master’s program. “They’re no longer locked away in a high security vault. They’re being conceived of as knowledge for everyone.”

Part of AU’s public anthropology program is communicating what you’re doing with the world—and putting that knowledge toward greater social understanding. AU faculty and students already publish in outlets outside of academic journals so as to reach a broader audience. And a big part of what Becca hopes to do in her career is engage the public even more with the past—and with anthropology.

“Even if we can’t post every detail about what we’re learning, the idea of being open about research is something I’m trying to incorporate going forward,” she says.


A Collaborative Discovery

The Rising Star Project was an open access model from the start. Its lead scientist, Lee Berger, found the six scientists for the excavation team by putting out a Facebook post. And each member would come from a different specialty and background.

Once the team was on-site at the cave outside Johannesburg, they worked closely with local volunteers and students to make the whole excavation happen in a short amount of time.

“In a field that’s typically closed off, it’s been remarkable that everyone supported each other and worked together,” Becca says. After a day’s work, the scientist team also took the time to share with the outside world what they were finding.

“We were skyping with schools around the world, from the U.S. to Taiwan,” Becca says. Through blogs and social media, they engaged the public, youth, locals and other scholars, involving them in their scientific process.

After the excavation was complete, Rising Star put out another call for junior researchers to help them analyze the fossils.

“From the beginning, there’s been an emphasis on incorporating early career scientists into the project,” Becca says. Not only was it a learning experience for these scientists, it helped speed up the analysis too. The team finished analyzing the fossils in just six weeks—a process that usually takes many months.

“Rising Star was the first time I’ve seen open science done successfully on such a large scale,” Becca says. “It makes me excited and hopeful.”


Engaging the Public with the Past

How did these hominid fossils get down in the deep cave? When do they date back to? What capacities did Naledi’s smaller brain have? Even amidst an amazing discovery, there are so many questions and so much for us modern humans still to learn.

But this perhaps will be made easier by sharing. Now that the data is accessible to other researchers on the web, “we can all have an academic conversation and learn from each other as we analyze this information,” Becca says.

“We’re shifting the paradigm and power structure with this open access model.” Becca hopes to follow the Rising Star model in how it’s made science accessible.

“People are getting excited about science and sharing in the process of understanding—in real time.”


Click to learn more about a master’s degree in public anthropology from American University.


Photo Credit: The team lays out fossils of H. naledi at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute. The new species of human relative was discovered by a team led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand deep inside a cave located outside Johannesburg, South Africa. The find was announced by the University of the Witwatersrand, the National Geographic Society and the South African National Research Foundation and published in the journal eLife. Photo by Robert Clark/National Geographic

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