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Interview with paleoanthropologists, what help does 3D printer bring to archaeological research?

July 11, 2019

Researcher Jinlian Munir works in a museum in Paris, and we talked to him about 3D modeling and the use of 3D printers. As a paleoanthropologist, he shared with us his use of 3D modeling in paleoanthropological research, and the conveniences of 3D printing in his daily work. Here's an interview we brought to you.


Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Jinlian Munnier, a CNRS researcher who works in a museum in Paris. As a paleoanthropologist, he is mainly engaged in the study of human evolution. More specifically, I am studying the last part of our family: the history of the human genus, which began 2 million years ago. We call the genus Homo, which includes several extinct species (e.g., Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Mitral Homo, Heidelberg Homo and Neanderthal) and our Homo sapiens. All these extinct species are actually closer to us than other species, such as Australopithecus.

In which case do you use 3D printing technology?

Traditionally, paleoanthropologists are studying anatomy, and skeletal morphology as skeleton is the main tissue preserved in fossil records. We compared these fossils with actual humans or chimpanzees. Over the past few decades, advances in new technologies have helped us quantify the morphology of these specimens using analytical methods. The analysis method takes into account the three-dimensional shape, which is why I now use 3D scanning to process the three-dimensional model.

Why use Photogrammetry for the creation of 3D models?

There are several options to get a three-dimensional model. It is feasible to reconstruct the volume of three-dimensional objects by using tomography or three-dimensional scanning of photographs. The advantage of photogrammetry lies in its price: it is a low-cost technology. A good camera is enough to collect data, and software to recreate objects from images is not expensive. Again, it's easy to transport, and besides being used in museums, it can also be taken to distant places. For example, when I was doing archaeological excavations in northern Kenya, it was a dry area, difficult to access, and the site had no infrastructure (roads or electricity...). Photogrammetry can create a high-quality three-dimensional model, including the shape and texture of the skeleton, because the model is created by high-quality images.

What 3D software are you using?

For photogrammetry, I use Agisoft meta-shape, which can create 3D models from pictures. In order to process these three-dimensional models before analyzing them, I used an open source software meshlab. The three-dimensional model obtained from photogrammetry, three-dimensional surface scanning or computed tomography often has some defects. Then, for analysis and modeling, I used R software.

creality-3d-printer-02How does 3D printing technology present itself in your work and how does it help you complete your project?

3D printing technology is very important in my work. First, 3D printing allows me to carry fossils with me. In fact, we can't bring back fossils from Kenya for research purposes, but a 3D model would allow me to bring them back. Then, most of the analysis I'm doing now is done using three-dimensional geometric morphometry. This technique allows only the shape of the specimen to be processed, avoiding the influence of size on the shape.

For example, for two samples from the same group, there may be some morphological differences, which may only be caused by size differences: if a sample is really high, then the morphology must be different. Geometric morphometry is a shape-only method. I use three-dimensional modeling to estimate the hypothetical shape of ancestors. These three-dimensional models are a way of generating possible ancestors and creating virtual fossils. They can then be compared with actual fossils.

Why did you start using 3D printing?

3D printing technology is of great significance to the study of fossils from abroad. In fact, we can take the fossils back and print them out in 3D to get a new physical version. Recently, we worked with sculptors to print a fossil from Kenya in 3D. I'm also working on fossils for 3D modeling. I can also do 3D printing and research as real as I can.

Phylogenetic characterization of the genus Homo in morphological space: green, the first representative of the genus Homo, followed by blue Neanderthals, and finally Homo sapiens. These three-dimensional models represent the virtual ancestors of the three groups.


Have you used 3D printing technology in your previous projects?

In 2016, in collaboration with Professor Marta Miraz Rall of Cambridge University, I published a phylogenetic model to study the common ancestors of modern humans and Neanderthals. Virtual fossils allow us to see his shape intuitively, but these 3D printing projects can be used to do some popular science work, so that more people are interested in our research. I want to do more and print more fossils so that people can better understand what we do.

What 3D printer do you use for your work?
I used to use FDM technology, using polylactic acid consumables printing, now I use SLS technology.

Can you tell us more about your cooperation with Sculpteo?
The work of paleoanthropologists increasingly needs to pass through digital filters. But it should be noted that we are anatomists and our work is comparatively morphological. 3D printing technology has created virtual fossils for us, and we have created new parts that represent possible forms of our species'history. It allows us to bring printed bones back to study in the process of analysis.

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