Between a Rock & a Hard Place: Lithic Tools

by Rebecca Byrnes, Museum Intern

My section of the exhibit, as stated in my previous entry, will focus on Homo habilis as well as Homo erectus, and I’ve chosen to have one of the most prominent features in the exhibit to be about stone tool making.

I first learned about stone tool creation in my archaeology courses this semester. Though I’d heard brief descriptions of lithic (stone) tools, I’d never been introduced to how they’re manufactured. In archaeology class I watched a video featuring Bruce Bradley, one of the best specialists on lithic manufacturing. The tools needed for the job are simple- a hammer stone or antler, and a type of stone that breaks in a particular pattern.  I was amazed to hear of the very specific cone-shaped breakage found when hitting a piece of obsidian. This shape of breakage is termed as being “conchoidal.” Bradley was able to predict exactly what the flake would look like, which was a feat I thought impossible.

Often when we hear of hominins making stone tools, we believe that it’s a relatively easy process. We figure you bang on a bit of stone for a while and when it looks about right, you go off and slay some large animal. I must admit that I also believed this before studying anthropology, but this is definitely not the case.

In my archaeology lab class I had the unique opportunity to try to manufacture my own tool. I was given a brick and some sand along with a plethora of raw materials. I selected for myself some shell, bone, and rock as I had recently seen a picture of bone beads and stone projectile points and felt inspired.

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I sat down and considered my approach. I concluded that my first step would be to break the rock into a more manageable piece. So I hit it with a rock. The rock shattered, leaving me flabbergasted and having to now pick up the shards of its remains. I then began the shaping portion, something I assumed would be rather easy.

It wasn’t.

I tried sanding it and using a small hammer stone to break off smaller bits, to no avail.

“Well, I didn’t want a projectile point anyway,” I said in a defeated tone, placing the rock down and picking up bone. So I sat there for the remainder of class sanding a little piece of bone against a brick. By the end of two classes I had a piece of bone exactly the same size as before with a slightly smooth edge and a brick that had been substantially sanded down.

What I’m trying to describe here is that it’s simply marvelous to stop and consider the complex stone tools found at some of these sites. The hand axes found with H. erectus specimens are so amazing when you take into consideration the skills needed to complete such a difficult task. This is why I want to make lithics such a prominent piece of the exhibit. I hope that through the design of the exhibit the museum is able to illustrate how astonishing and impressive tool making really is in a way that sticks with the visitors.

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An Educator’s Perspective

by Brett Dooley, MSJC Professional Development Coordinator

The students and scientists involved with this exhibit have already shared their experiences. I come with a slightly different perspective, which I’d like to share. I am married to Alton, and thus have been around museums and discussing exhibits with him for over 15 years, but this is the first time I have been “in the trenches” for an exhibit design. I am a teacher, having taught elementary, middle, high school, and currently community college, and I have a research interest in geoscience education. The perspective I bring is a focus through these lenses. What I see in this collaboration are the myriad ways all of the participants are benefiting from the project, along with a few ways it could be even better.

Since I’m married to the big guy, I’ll start with what he and Erik seem to be getting out of this. In these two you have a tremendous amount of knowledge but not in the same fields. What links them are the ties between physical anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, most significantly surrounding evolution. The excitement and enthusiasm they bring presents itself through series of positive feedback discourses, which are rather amusing to watch. One of them will make a comment, which sparks an idea in the other, who then rambles off on a somewhat relevant tangent, both of them with richer notions of exhibit design or content for the conversation.

Meanwhile, the students, along with the benefits derived from conducting their independent research, have the opportunity to witness these conversations. At times they ask questions or make comments, but generally they sit back and listen. This is, however, not simple, passive learning. What the students have the opportunity to witness is the true nature of science!

IMG_4495Science, for all the stereotypes that scientists are socially awkward, is a field that relies heavily on communication, collaboration, and creativity. People think artists are creative and scientists are logical. Well, okay, scientists tend to be logical, but the field also involves a great deal of innate curiosity and creativity. How else could one come to understand all of the new discoveries and constantly think of new questions and new problems to solve? The students are seeing an exhibit come together, and doing extensive research about a few species of hominins, but more significantly, they are experiencing science. They are seeing, some for the first time, that they are not alone or strange for their love or passion for learning about long extinct organisms. They are getting to see the tangible rewards for and value in the research they are doing, knowing the children and adults in their community will benefit from what they are doing.

This semester has been exciting. I look forward to its continuation in the summer and fall, to observing the various interactions, and even adding my two cents every now and then.

If You 3-D Print It, They Will Come

by Bo Cheshire, Museum Intern

My father fit the bill of ‘mechanically inclined’; when I was 12 he designed a hydraulic lift to attach a motorcycle to the side of an 18-wheeler, and in the basement of our house he designed and built neon light systems. He enjoyed working on motorcycles and cars, and loved to think about and understand how systems worked. I grew up watching him tinker.

This curiosity has extended to me through the lens of the natural world, but I also love engineering and technology. One could just ask my wife about the state of unfinished projects in my garage to get the full view of my obsessions, so getting the opportunity to utilize 3-D printing in conjunction with this exhibit is a dream come true.

The idea sprang from Professor Ozolins during out first meeting as a group in February. When the problem of how we might best exhibit specimens that we couldn’t get casts for was broached, he mentioned that we might be able to print them; I volunteered for the project immediately.

Professor Ozolins put me in contact with Dr. Nick Reeves, Professor of Biology and program manager for the STEM program at Mount San Jacinto College. Dr. Reeves, who has been gracious and generous with his time, was just as excited as I was to be printing hominin skulls. We met last month and he introduced me to the 5th generation Makerbot.

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The 5th generation Makerbot 3-D printer.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and user friendly the system was. In most cases it was as simple as uploading a file, providing a little editing and manipulation, review, and print. My initial run was a small block in order to train me on the software and provide a proof of concept that the technology indeed printed exactly what we asked it to.

Next, we set our sights on the Homo naledi specimen, perhaps the newest and most exciting find in paleoanthropology in the last couple years. To place that statement into perspective, the principal investigator for H. naledi, Dr. Lee Berger, was just named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for this year.

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The Makerbot software in action.

One of the great things Dr. Berger has done is provide all of his research and castings in an open source format. This allows wannabes like me to access the materials and print the models. So in order to assess the technology’s ability to deliver quality models, we selected a reconstruction of the H. naledi skull and shrunk it to 1/12th the original size. That initial printing went flawlessly, and encouraged, we decided it was time to scale up the model.

Our initial try at a full size H. naledi reconstruction was estimated to last 12 hours; both Professor Reeves and I were excited but cautiously optimistic. When I arrived the next day I found only the lower third of the specimen had printed. As with any technology there are bound to be hiccups. Undaunted, I checked all the potential error points and found that the full size model hadn’t completely loaded, leaving us with the bottom third. The printer had done exactly what it was supposed to.

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The first failed attempt.

After an update to the software, Professor Reeves loaded the printer for another run at the full size skull. Now estimated at 26 hours, it was set to run over a weekend. That Monday morning, I was full of anticipation, and after my first class I checked my email. Success!

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The finished 3-D printed skull.

Being able to utilize this technology is going to allow us to share an important new find in paleoanthropology with the community. It allows us to go beyond the photographs and drawings that we may have otherwise used and provide the people who visit something tangible, a piece of our collective heritage that you touch and examine for yourself. I’m excited for how we’re incorporating this work into the exhibit, and am looking forward to finding new innovative ways to utilize this technology.

A New Direction

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by Lisa Hathaway, Museum Intern

Hi everyone! I would like to introduce myself: my name is Lisa Hathaway and I’m a student at Mt San Jacinto College. I’m fortunate enough to be part of such a wonderful project conducting research on hominin fossils.

I have been a student at MSJC for the past two and a half years. When I started at the college I was working full time and raising my little girl Sabryn, who is now seven years old. I started with nursing as my major, but then I was introduced to Cultural Anthropology and Professor Pam Ford. After that, nursing went out the door! I liked it, but not the same way as anthropology. It makes me spark like a kid in a candy store – it’s exciting and fun and I really love it.

Did I say that I really love it?

It’s been such a wonderful journey and learning process. I enjoy meeting people and learning about different cultures. I’m originally from the Caribbean; Trinidad and Tobago to be exact. It’s a cosmopolitan population so I can appreciate everyone and the unique qualities that they have to offer. I have lived in several different places and states and enjoy learning. The San Jacinto Valley has been our home for almost four years and I have met many wonderful people here.

As a child I always loved going to the museums in New York. That was always one of my favorite past times. I have great memories going there with my mom, aunt, and my brother Nick. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have such a wonderful opportunity to be part of this project! I am learning so much and I am enjoying every moment. Last month we had the opportunity to see some of the casts that were ordered and they were so awesome. I hope everyone follows and enjoys this journey with us.