Tag Archives: skull

Oldest modern bird species so far discovered in Belgian limestone quarry

The fossil represents the oldest modern bird species found to date, hailing all the way back to when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

The anatomy of the newly-discovered fossil skull.
Image credits Daniel J. Field et al., (2020), Nature.

Nicknamed the “Wonderchicken”, the fossil includes a nearly complete skull and was found in a limestone quarry near the Belgian-Dutch border. The bird likely lived alongside dinosaurs up to the end of the Cretaceous period and will help researchers piece together why birds survived the asteroid impact which wiped dinosaurs off the face of the Earth.

This is the first time a modern bird hailing from the dinosaur era has been found in the northern hemisphere.

Tastes like chicken

“The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career,” said Dr. Daniel Field from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, who led the research.

“This is one of the best-preserved fossil bird skulls of any age, from anywhere in the world. We almost had to pinch ourselves when we saw it, knowing that it was from such an important time in Earth’s history.

The Wonderchicken skull shows a combination of features seen in fowl such as ducks and chickens, suggesting that this species is close to the last common ancestor of the two modern bird families (group Galloanserae). The fossil itself was dated to around one million years before this extinction event.

The team used high-resolution X-ray CT scans to investigate the fossil, which is embedded in a piece of rock about the same size as a deck of cards. Their efforts revealed a stunning discovery: the nearly-complete skull of a 66.7-million-year-old bird.

“Finding the skull blew my mind,” said co-author Juan Benito, also from Cambridge, who was CT scanning the fossils with Field when the skull was discovered.

“Without these cutting-edge scans, we never would have known that we were holding the oldest modern bird skull in the world.”

While the team affectionately refers to the fossil bird as the Wonderchicken, they have also given it a proper scientific name: Asteriornis maastrichtensis, from the Greek Titaness of falling stars Asteria and the Maastrichtian geological age.

“We thought it was an appropriate name for a creature that lived just before the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact,” said co-author Dr. Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“In Greek mythology, Asteria transforms herself into a quail, and we believe Asteriornis was close to the common ancestor that today includes quails, as well as chickens and ducks.”

The paper “Late Cretaceous neornithine from Europe illuminates the origins of crown birds” has been published in the journal Nature.

P. robustus skull.

One of our extinct ancient relatives developed a chewing pattern unique among primates

Not all human ancestors chewed the same way, new research reveals.

P. robustus skull.

Paranthropus robustus fossil from South Africa SK 46 (discovered 1936, estimated age 1.9-1.5 million years) and the virtually reconstructed first upper molar used in the analyses.
Image credits Kornelius Kupczik / Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

While we’re the only one that made it up to the present, we’re by no means the only species of hominins — the evolutionary group that includes modern humans and now-extinct bipedal relatives — that popped up throughout history. At least one of our human ancestors, new research shows, developed a unique way to chew.

Ancient chow

Being able to properly chew your food is a matter of life and death. It helps break food down into tiny pieces so they can be swallowed and digested. But every species has its own way of going about it — based on their diet and individual morphology.

You can learn a lot about an animal by looking at what it eats and the way it chews on it, and that stands true for humans as well as wildlife. Palaeoanthropologists go to great lengths to reconstruct the diets of ancient hominid species, as diet underpins our evolutionary history. A high-quality diet, for example, coupled with meat-eating, provided the nutrients that modern humans needed to develop our big brains. Some of our hominin relatives, by contrast, likely went extinct because of their diets (for example, the Neanderthals).

Two extinct hominin lineages — Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus — have constantly sparked debate in regards to their diet since their discovery. An international team of researchers, led by members from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, studied the splay and orientation of their fossil tooth roots in an attempt to settle the debate once and for all. Their findings surprisingly reveal that P. robustus employed a unique way of chewing food — one that hasn’t been seen in any other hominin species to date.

The team used high-resolution computed tomography and shape analysis to determine how teeth roots were oriented within the jaw of ancient hominin lineages. Based on this information, they then gauged the direction of the load during mastication — i.e. the direction force was applied while they chewed.

By comparing the virtual reconstructions of 30 hominin first molars from lineages in South and East Africa, the team found that Australopithecus africanus had much more widely-splayed roots than either Paranthropus robustus or the East African hominin Paranthropus boisei. This yielded a surprising revelation about P. robustus.

“This is indicative of increased laterally-directed chewing loads in Australopithecus africanus, while the two Paranthropus species experienced rather vertical loads,” says Kornelius Kupczik of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, first author of the paper.

Unlike all other hominins involved in the study, P. robustus showed a ‘twist’ in the roots of their teeth — suggesting a slight rotational and back-and-forth movement while chewing, the team explains. Other characteristics of their skulls support this observation, they add: the structure of the enamel also points towards a complex, multi-directional motion. Microwear patterns in the enamel (which the team reports are “unique among primates”) also point to a different motion of the jaw while masticating compared to how we do it, for example.

While diet also has a major part to play in shaping our and P. robustus‘ skulls, as well as in the patters of wear observable on their teeth, the team says dietary differences alone cannot account for all that they’re seeing.

“Perhaps palaeoanthropologists have not always been asking the right questions of the fossil record: rather than focusing on what our extinct cousins ate, we should equally pay attention to how they masticated their foods,” concludes co-author Gabriele Macho of the University of Oxford.

The research could have implications beyond paleoanthropology, the team explains. By studying the particularities of P. robustus‘ morphology, its mastication patterns, and its effect on the lineage’s teeth, “we can eventually apply such findings to the modern human dentition to better understand pathologies such as malocclusions,” explains co-author Viviana Toro-Ibacache.

The paper “On the relationship between maxillary molar root shape and jaw kinematics in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Minke whale.

Whale skulls act like resonance chambers to help them hear underwater

Whales don’t put their back into hearing — but they do put their skull. New research, along with the first-ever full-body CT scan of minke whale show how the sea-borne mammals can pick up low-frequency sounds, from the calls of other whales to the propellers of cargo ships.

Minke whale.

The minke whale specimen inside the industrial CT scanner. To reduce the time required to scan the entire whale, the team cut the specimen in half, scanned both pieces at the same time, and reconstructed the complete specimen afterward in the computer.
Image credits Ted Cranford / San Diego State University.

The gentle giants of the sea often bedazzle and impress with their songs, but… how can they hear each other underwater? New research suggests that it’s possible if you use your head. If you use your head as a huge acoustic antenna, that is.

Can you hear that?

Considering where whales like to hang out and their impressive girths, studying the marine mammals is notoriously difficult. However, one team of determined US researchers wouldn’t let that dissuade them. The duo has developed a new method of determining how baleen whales (parvorder Mysticeti) pick up low-frequency chatter between 10 to 200 Hertz.

“You can imagine that it is nearly impossible to give a hearing test to a whale, one of the largest animals in the world,” said lead researcher Ted W. Cranford, PhD, adjunct professor of research in the department of biology at San Diego State University.

“The techniques we have developed allow us to simulate the biomechanical processes of sound reception and to estimate the audiogram [hearing curve] of a whale by using the details of anatomic geometry.”

Using a computerized tomography (CT) scanner designed for industrial applications (it was originally used to spot structural defects in rockets), the researchers analyzed the internal structure of a minke whale calf (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and a fin whale calf (B. physalus). Both animals were found stranded along the U.S. coast some years before the study and were preserved after they died during rescue operations.

CT scanners are a type of X-ray detectors that take a cross-sectional picture through objects or organisms. You’re likely quite familiar with them from hospitals or TV shows involving hospitals. The team produced 3D models showing of the calves’ skulls based these scans. Then, they used a method known as finite element modeling (FEM) to combine maps of tissue density from the CT scans with measurements of tissue elasticity. Finally, a supercomputer simulated these combined models’ response to sounds of different frequencies.

The team reports that whales’ skulls surprisingly act as antennae or a resonance chambers: the bones vibrate when impacted by sound, amplifying and transmitting the vibrations to the whales’ ears. The skulls were especially well-tuned to the low-frequency sounds that whales use to communicate. The authors also note that large shipping vessels also produce the same frequencies, a finding that should help industry and policymakers establish new regulation to limit our impact on these gentle giants.

In addition, the team’s models suggest that minke whales hear low-frequency sound best when it arrives from directly ahead of them. This suggests whales have directional hearing that provides cues about the location of sound sources, such as other whales or oncoming ships. Exactly if (and how) whales might boast directional hearing is still a puzzling question, given that low-frequency sounds tend to travel in waves that are longer than the whales themselves.

The findings were presented Monday, April 23rd at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting during the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.

How expressive eyebrows helped shape human evolution

Mobile, expressive eyebrows give humans the ability to express a broader range of feelings and emotions, adding more subtlety and nuance to our interpersonal relations.

Eyebrows on fleek: Model of a modern human skull next to Kabwe 1. Image credits: Paul O’Higgins, University of York.

If you think about it, Homo sapiens don’t really have much going for them as a dominant species. We’re not the strongest or most agile creatures around, and we weren’t necessarily the smartest. But, humans did shine in one particular aspect: communication. Humans established large social networks which functioned with unprecedented efficiency — and apparently, eyebrows also played a part in that.

Modern humans have smooth, vertical foreheads with communicative eyebrows. Early humans, in contrast, sported thick, bony brow ridges. Previous studies have argued that these features protected against bites or scratches, but a new study suggests that, like antlers on a stag, pronounced brow ridges were a permanent signal of dominance and aggression in our early ancestors’ times.

Ricardo Godinho and colleagues digitally recreated a fossil Homo heidelbergensis skull thought to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old. They found that the brow ridge is much larger than what would be needed to account for the disjunction between the eye sockets and braincase, and it also does little to protect the skull when eating.

Instead, Godinho and his colleagues suggest that the brows had a social purpose, especially since similar features are used for signaling in other primates. For instance, the baboon-like mandrills have bony, colorful muzzles that signal dominance in males and reproductive status in females. Paul O’Higgins, Professor of Anatomy at the University of York, and another lead author of the study, said:

“Looking at other animals can offer interesting clues as to what the function of a prominent brow ridge may have been. In mandrills, dominant males have brightly coloured swellings on either side of their muzzles to display their status. The growth of these lumps is triggered by hormonal factors and the bones underlying them are pitted with microscopic craters – a feature that can also be seen in the brow bones of archaic hominins.”

Previous research suggests that our faces have gotten progressively smaller, over the past 100,000 years, with the process accelerating in the past 20,000 years — especially as we switched from hunter-gatherers to farmers, a process that involved less effort and less variety in the foods we ate.

As all other hominins were fading away, humans were rapidly colonizing the globe, surviving in varied, and sometimes extreme environments. This was largely owed to our complex social networks. For instance, as Dr. Penny Spikins from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York explains, we do know that prehistoric modern humans avoided inbreeding and went to stay with friends in distant locations during hard times. Eyebrows could have played a surprisingly big role, allowing humans to send elaborate social signals in an instant — eyebrows might be the communication missing puzzle piece, Spikins says.

“Eyebrow movements allow us to express complex emotions as well as perceive the emotions of others. A rapid “eyebrow flash” is a cross-cultural sign of recognition and openness to social interaction and pulling our eyebrows up at the middle is an expression of sympathy. Tiny movements of the eyebrows are also a key component to identifying trustworthiness and deception. On the flip side it has been shown that people who have had botox which limits eyebrow movement are less able to empathise and identify with the emotions of others,” Spiking adds.

“Eyebrows are the missing part of the puzzle of how modern humans managed to get on so much better with each other than other now-extinct hominins,” she concludes.

Journal ReferenceSupraorbital morphology and social dynamics in human evolution. DOI 10.1038/s41559-018-0528-0

Surreal, six-inch mummy with an elongated skull finally described by scientists

It’s the strangest human mummy you’ll likely ever see, and it’s not an alien.

The alien-like mummified specimen from Atacama region of Chile. Credits: Bhattacharya et al. 2018.

In 2003, researchers found an incredibly bizarre mummy in Chile. Measuring a mere 6 inches, with an extremely elongated skull and several extreme abnormalities, it only remotely looked human. The questions came in fast, and they poured in: what is? Is it human — and if it is human, why does it look so strange?  The specimen was auctioned off to a Spanish businessman which delayed proper studies but now, results from the first comprehensive analysis are finally in.

“This was an unusual specimen with some fairly extraordinary claims put forward. It would be an example of how to use modern science to answer the question what is it?” says senior author Garry Nolan from Stanford University.

Not an alien

Thankfully, Ata, as the skeleton was named (short for Atacama), contains some high-quality DNA which researchers were able to sequence. They compared Ata’s DNA with human and non-human primate reference genomes, including chimpanzee and rhesus macaque. To the chagrin of UFO hunters, researchers learned that Ata is very much human and even more — she has Chilean ancestry.

DNA results will certainly disappoint UFO conspiracists, but Ata is very much human — although she’s incredibly small and suffers from several malformations. Image credits: Garry Nolan.

Although researchers believed Ata was a few years old, Nolan now believes she was either stillborn or only lived for a few days. It’s unclear exactly when Ata lived, though the skeleton seems to be at least several decades old — probably some 40 years.

Next, researchers moved on to look for more clues regarding Ata’s extremely short stature and unusual features, which aside from the obvious skull malformation, include an abnormal rib count and premature bone age. They found multiple mutations in genes associated with diseases such as dwarfism, scoliosis, and musculoskeletal abnormalities. Surprisingly, all these malformations can be explained with a relatively short list of gene mutations in genes associated with bone development, Nolan says.

However, Ata is more than just an interesting specimen. Since she had the grave misfortune of suffering such severe abnormalities, she can teach us quite a bit about how the gene mutations can affect the human body.

“This is a great example of how studying ancient samples can teach us how to analyze modern day medical samples” says co-author Atul Butte, from the UCSF.

Aside from her skeletal malformations, Ata also probably suffered from something called congenital diaphragmatic hernia — a fairly common, but also life-threatening condition where a baby’s diaphragm doesn’t form correctly. Nolan told The Guardian:

“She was so badly malformed as to be unable to feed. In her condition, she would have ended up in the neonatal ICU, but given where the specimen was found, such things were simply not available,” he said.

“While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy. A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then ‘hocked’ or sold as a strange artefact. It turns out to be human, with a fascinating genetic story from which we might learn something important to help others. May she rest in peace.”

Journal Reference: Bhattacharya S, Li J, Sockell A, Kan M, Bava F, Chen, S, Ávila-Arcos M, Ji X, Smith E, Asadi N, Lachman R, Lam H, Bustamante C, Butte A, Nolan G. 2018. Whole genome sequencing of Atacama skeleton shows novel mutations linked with dysplasia. Genome Research doi: 10.1101/gr.223693.117.

Edit: In its original form, this article had an error regarding Ata’s age.

We owe the shape of our jaws, at least in part, to our ancestors’ love of cheese

The advent of farming, with its ‘softer’ foods compared to previous hunter-gatherer menus, had a subtle but noticeable effect on the shape of human skulls, anthropologists from the University of California, Davis report.

Skull jaw.

Image credits Eliane Meyer.

Wild foods generally tend to be rougher than the stuff we’re used to nowadays. In other words, our hunter-forager ancestors had to put a lot more effort into chewing dinner than we do — they had to chew more and more often before dinner got in their bellies. Previous research has shown that there is a connection between skull shape and the advent of agriculture, but they haven’t gone as far as quantifying exactly how these changes developed over time.

So a team from UC Davis, made up of postdoc David Katz, statistician Mark Grote and associate anthropology professor Tim Weaver looked at 559 skulls and 534 lower jaws from over two dozen pre-industrial populations to see exactly how diet altered the shape and size of human skull bones as we transitioned to agriculture.

“The main differences between forager and farmer skulls are where we would expect to find them, and change in ways we might expect them to, if chewing demands decreased in farming groups,” said Katz, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Calgary, Alberta.

Overall, the team found subtle but noticeable changes in the skulls of communities that grew and consumed dairy, cereals, or both. The greatest effects were associated with groups whose diets included a large percentage of dairy and dairy products, which suggests a direct link between the softness of the food and morphological changes.

However, diet wasn’t the most important factor dictating skull characteristics. For example, the team reports that morphological differences between males and females, or those between individuals eating the same diet but came from different populations had a more pronounced effect.

It’s interesting to see how our lifestyles play a direct role in our evolutionary path. The effects are less pronounced than “neutral evolutionary processes” such as genetic drift, mutation, and gene flow structured by population history and migrations. But even diet’s more muted contribution to the Homo sapiens we all know and love today shows that we’ve been meddling with our evolution for a long time now — whether we want to or not.

With the advent of genetic engineering, we’re bound to have an even more pronounced influence in the future. Time will only tell what that influence will be.

The paper “Changes in human skull morphology across the agricultural transition are consistent with softer diets in preindustrial farming groups” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fossil skull alesi.

Tiny, fossilized ape skull brings us closer to the common human-ape ancestor, fuels debate over humanity’s place of birth

An almost perfectly preserved, 7 million-year-old primate skull comes to fuel the debate around humanity’s cradle of birth.

N. alesi skull.

Image credits Fred Spoor / AFP.

Anthropologists have been dying to get their hands on fossil evidence of the human-ape evolutionary split ever since we figured out that it must’ve happened. Three years ago, on a dusty trail in Kenya, Providence might have delivered them just one such prize. The catch, however, is that the fossilized skull is about the size of a baseball and comes from an infant individual. So it’s a bit of a mixed blessing, as it can help us piece together a rough idea of what the common ancestor of humans and apes looked like — but does little to settle other debates.

A Lucky Find

The skull is surprisingly well preserved for its age and was found in the Turkana Basin, northern Kenya, some 3 years ago. The team, led by primate paleontologist Isaiah Nengo of De Anza College in Cupertino, California, were working with Kenyan fossil hunter John Ekusi on excavations close to Lake Turkana. It hadn’t been a decidedly average day until Ekusi walked back to the jeep to light a cigarette — and found himself in surprising company.

“There was this skull just sticking out of the ground,” Nengo recalls. “It was incredible because we had been going up and down that path for weeks and never noticed it.”

It obviously once belonged to a primate, and the researchers sent it to the Noble Gas Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for argon isotope dating, revealing that it was about 13 million years old. Turkana Basin was a lush rainforest during that time, an ideal habitat for apes and other primates.

The skull resembled that of a modern gibbon, Nengo says, but teeth shape and dental patterns tie it closer to one other genus of Miocene primates found in Kenya, Nyanzapithecus. The skull’s molars, however, are much larger than those of known nyanzapithecines, which suggested a new species altogether. The researchers named it N. alesi after the Turkana word for “ancestor.”

Fossil skull alesi.

Image credits Christopher Kiarie / AFP.

It was then sent to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, for extremely high-detail X-ray imaging study. This allowed the team to count growth lines in the skull’s (still unerupted) adult teeth. These indicated that the animal was about 485 days (or 1 year and 4 months) old when it died. The imaging also showed bony ear tubes embedded in the skull, which likely acted as a balance organ.

And those tiny little tubes have a big implication. Whether Nyanzapithecus was an ape or monkey line has been a hotly topic, but these tubes, along with the shape and size of the teeth, solidly mark N. alesi — and by extension all nyanzapithecines — as apes, the team reports. Even more, these tubes signal a direct link to the ape line from which humans and modern apes originate.

Bones plz

That’s a finding that could put a long-lasting debate of humanity’s birthplace to bed. Finding a common man-ape ancestor in Africa tips the scales heavily in favor of this continent. But the debate is far from settled, because what the tiny skull giveth it also taketh away.

The problem is that most headway in anthropology research is based on comparative analysis. That’s a fancy way of saying that anthropologists spend a lot of time comparing similar fossils to create an evolutionary roadmap. It works really well if you have fossils to compare — but that’s not the case here. We didn’t find any other infant Miocene-ape skull apart from this one. So although it could offer a link between modern human and ape ancestry, it leaves too much wiggle room. For example, we can’t meaningfully compare it to recently-found Graecopithecus, a similar early hominid/human-like ape which seems to hail from Europe. So while supporters of the out of Africa theory can point to N. alesi, their counterparts can rally around Graecopithecus — and it’s a stalemate again.

We simply need more fossil evidence to pinpoint humanity’s place of birth beyond a doubt. We may never be able to do it, considering how unlikely it is for bones to successfully fossilize. But considering the team found their skull literally sticking half-out from the ground, I’d say we have a fair bit of luck on our side.

The paper “New infant cranium from the African Miocene sheds light on ape evolution” has been published in the journal Nature.

Facial reconstruction shows how British people looked like 3,700 years ago

The facial reconstruction of Ava, who died more than 3,700 years ago.
Image credits Hew Morrison.

Archaeologists and forensic artists have completed the facial reconstruction of a woman who died around 3,700 years ago in the Scottish Highlands. The woman is believed to have belonged to the Beaker culture, which became prominent in Europe in the Bronze Age for their metalwork and characteristic pottery.

The woman has been named Ava, an abbreviation of Achacanich, Caithness, where she was found in 1987. A specialist examination at the time of the discovery in the 1980s suggested that the skeletal remains were that of a young Caucasian woman aged 18-22.

She became the subject of a long-term research project by archaeologist Maya Hoole, as her burial stands out from others during the Bronze Age. Her bones were discovered in a pit dug into solid rock — which is highly unusual as excavating such a hard medium was extremely laborious — along with several artifacts. Even more puzzlingly, her skull has an abnormal shape, which some believe is the result of deliberate binding.

Forensic artist Hew Morrison, a graduate of the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art Msc programme, created the reconstruction. As the skull was missing a jaw bone, he had to calculate the shape of its lower jaw starting from her skull dimensions – as well as the depth of her skin. Morrison also used a chart of modern average tissue depths as a reference.

“The size of the lips can be determined by measuring the enamel of the teeth and the width of the mouth from the position of the teeth,” he explained.

Morrison added layer after layer of muscle and tissue over her face, drawing on a large database of high-resolution facial images to recreate her features. These were then tailored to the anatomy of her skull after constructing her facial muscles. The features were then “morphed together”, using computer software to create the reconstructed face.

Ava’s skull was first discovered in 1987.
Image credits Michael Sharpe.

“Normally, when working on a live, unidentified person’s case not so much detail would be given to skin tone, eye or hair colour and hair style as none of these elements can be determined from the anatomy of the skull,” Morrison said.

“So, creating a facial reconstruction based on archaeological remains is somewhat different in that a greater amount of artistic licence can be allowed.”

He added: “I have really appreciated the chance to recreate the face of someone from ancient Britain. Being able to look at the faces of individuals from the past can give us a great opportunity to identify with our own ancient ancestors.”

“When I started this project I had no idea what path it would take, but I have been approached by so many enthusiastic and talented individuals – like Hew – who are making the research a reality, Hoole added.

“I’m very grateful to everyone who has invested in the project and I hope we can continue to reveal more about her life.”

Pamela Shavaun Scott and a life-sized 3D printed version of her skull. Her tumour rests right about where her right index finger is. Image: Makezine

Man 3-D prints his wife’s tumor and saves her life

ZME Science has reported extensively on how 3-D printing is being implemented in the medical sector with some fantastic results. Yet, the real revolutionary thing about 3D printing – whether used for product prototyping, printing prostheses or spare parts on the International Space Station – is that anyone can use it.

Such is the story of Michael Balzer who made a 3D model of his wive’s skull, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor, printed it, then sent it to renowned surgeons all over the country. Eventually, a doctor used the skull to prepare for a delicate, novel operation and removed the woman’s tumor with minimal invasion, as opposed to other methods. Had it not been for Balzer’s creative thinking, his wife would’ve likely gone blind in one eye, if not lost her life.

Eventually, a doctor used the skull to prepare for a delicate, novel operation and removed the woman’s tumor with minimal invasion, as opposed to other methods. Had it not been for Balzer’s creative thinking, his wife would’ve likely gone blind in one eye, if not lost her life.

Medicine in the hands of common people

Pamela Shavaun Scott and a life-sized 3D printed version of her skull. Her tumour rests right about where her right index finger is. Image: Makezine

Pamela Shavaun Scott and a life-sized 3D printed version of her skull. Her tumor rests right about where her right index finger is. Image: Makezine

Balzer and his wife, Pamela Shavaun Scott, are no strangers to health problems. Balzer,  a former Air Force technical instructor and software engineer, lost his job after struggling with a long illness and Scott had her thyroid removed only a couple months prior to discovering the tumor.

It was the thyroid surgery that taught the couple how to approach their hardest moment together. Typically, the thyroid is removed by making a big cut in the throat which leaves a big and unaesthetic scar, followed by a long period of recovery. With proper diligence and research, the couple found doctors who used a novel procedure. They traveled from California to the Center for Robotic Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where a robotic arm carefully made minimal amounts of sharp cuts, otherwise impossible to make by a shaky human hand. This taught them the value of making use of the latest, cutting-edge technology out there and not going for the very first recommendation.

Yet, only a couple of months after the surgery Scott reported dreadful headaches. Fearing complications following the thyroid surgery, Balzer urged his wife to have an MRI scan- – she submitted. Disaster. Doctors found  a three-centimeter tumor lodged behind her left eye. The two were heart struck, but the doctors who made the consultation didn’t share their worry. They reported that such tumors were common among women and recommended Scott should have it checked again in a year. Balzer wasn’t convinced, and sought a second opinion – quite a few actually. He e-mailed the MRI scans to doctors around the country, who almost unanimously agreed the women should immediately schedule for surgery.

A few months later, Scott had another MRI. This time, the doctors’ reaction was different: they were appalled by what seemed an accelerated tumor growth, indicating a far more severe condition than initially diagnosed. However, when Balzer — a seasoned 3D designer — rendered his wive’s DICOM files (the standard digital format for medical imaging data) atop previous MRIs, he  found that the tumor hadn’t grown. The radiologist was just looking at it from another angle and it appeared bigger.

 “I thought, ‘why don’t we take it to the next level?’” Balzer says for Makerzine. “Let’s see what kind of tools are available so that I can take the DICOMs, which are 2D slices, and convert them into a 3D model.”

MRI scans stacked to reveal how large the tumour is. Credit: Makerzine

MRI scans stacked to reveal how large the tumor actually is. Credit: Makerzine


He then took the model and printed it to have a better idea of kind of treatment they could seek. Scott’s tumor, known as meningioma, sits somewhere beneath the brain. So to reach it and remove it, doctors have to saw the skull, literally uproot the brain, reach out under it and eject the tumor. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

Following such an operation, Scott would have stood at a considerable risk of losing her smell, taste or even sight, since nerves can easily become loose.

Desperate, Blazer send the 3D model to doctors across the country, looking for some alternative treatment. He was in luck, he found a surgeon in the same Pittsburgh research center where Scott had her thyroid removed. A neurosurgeon there agreed to consider a minimally invasive operation in which he would access the tumor through Scott’s left eyelid and remove it using a micro drill.

Blazer sent the doctor a few full-sized models of his wife’s skull, which the team there used it to practice and plan the procedure. Scott had the tumor removed at UPMC in May 2014 through a small opening above her left eye. Doctors noticed that the tumor had begun to entangle her optical nerve and had she waited more than six months for the surgery, she most certainly would have gone blind. Following the eight-hour long procedure, 95% of the tumor was extracted and no visible marks were left visible. It was a sound victory – one that goes beyond the husband and wife’s life story.

Blazer’s creative thinking was made famous in medical circles throughout the country. Unwittingly, he layered the groundwork for the Medical Innovation Lab in Austin, Texas — a lab that will use 3D printed models  to help plan procedures and to explain diagnoses to patients.

“What you can now do through 3D printing is like what you’re able to do in the software world: Rapid iteration, fail fast, get something to market quickly,” says Dr. Michael Patton, CEO of the Lab, which launched in October 2014 . “You can print the prototypes, and then you can print out model organs on which to test the products. You can potentially obviate the need for some animal studies, and you can do this proof of concept before extensive patient trials are conducted.”

Here’s how to print your own medical features, be it a skull, bone or even organs if you’ve had an MRI or CT scan.

  • Ask your doctor for the DICOM files
  • Download 3D slicer and use the Region Growing tool to segment the image
  • Extract the 3D mesh of the surface and save as STL
  • Use ParaView to simplify the mesh
  • Print .
Man with prominent chin and missing teeth. Etching by Wenceslas Hollar.

Why in the world do we have chins? Maybe, because we evolved from being just brutes

Ever wondered what chins are good for? Upon a quick reflection, you might think it actually has some practical value, supporting your jaw against the massive chewing forces. But that’s nonsense. It doesn’t do any of that, as a recent research concludes. In fact, the chin – the last facial feature to stop growing – actually makes the jaw less resistant to the bending stress of chewing as we age. Though still a mystery, scientists believe the chin is actually a side effect of the rest of the face having become smaller. Much smaller than that of early ancestors or cousin Neanderthals, at least.

Man with prominent chin and missing teeth. Etching by Wenceslas Hollar.

Man with prominent chin and missing teeth. Etching by Wenceslas Hollar.

Of course, chins are nice and it’d be really weird not having one. There are round chins, weak chins, superman chins, whatever. They come in all shapes and sizes. Preferences in terms of what is deemed attractive vary just as much. With this in mind, it’s easy to think that chins appeared because of sexual selection, but that seems extremely unlikely. All eyes used to be brown, but at some point a mutation carried by a few humans with blue eyes surfaced. Deemed special and unique, it was easy for these humans to find mates and pass on their genes. After all, dreamy blue eyes are found highly attractive to this day. But you had to have eyes in the first place. The chin has to be there in the first place for the sexual selection theory to hold. it’s not like some mutant human was born with a deformity (a chin), then passed it down.

Another theory suggests that chins are there to support our jaws. This is because the jaw packs a really heavy punch, especially the human one which is roughly 50% times more efficient that other primates. Pound for pound, we humans bite harder than a gorilla.  According to TIME, the jaw exerts up to 70 lbs. per sq. in. (32 kg per 6.5 sq. cm) for the molars, and people who grind their teeth in sleep could push that force ten fold. Just like more stress builds stronger muscles, more grinding pressure might lead to more bone mass, hence the chin.

Human vs gorilla skull. One's adapted to house a larger brain, the other for brawl. Image: Smithsonian

Human vs gorilla skull. One’s adapted to house a larger brain, the other for brawl. Image: Smithsonian

Nathan Holton, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa, decided to put this to the test. He and colleagues examined X-ray images from the Iowa Facial Growth Study, which tracked skull development of participants from age 3 into adulthood. By inputting jaw and chin measurements into a model, the team could see how the chin influenced the bending stresses. To recap, more force in the chin would mean more bone mass, but judging from the measurements taken of the 37 participants this isn’t the case. In fact, as faces matured the chin was less adapted to withstanding the bending stresses. Myth busted!

“The development of the chin doesn’t seem to have anything to do with resistance to bending stresses,” Holton said. “They’re just not related.”

Scientists measured the mandibular symphysis (chin area) to infer the force applied to the chin by chewing. Image: New Scientist

Scientists measured the mandibular symphysis (chin area) to infer the force applied to the chin by chewing. Image: New Scientist

We’re not done yet. While chins and their purpose remain somewhat of a mystery, there seems to be some solid hints suggesting that chins appeared from subtraction, not addition. Namely, as our skulls became less broad facial features appeared more pronounced, including the chin. This makes sense since violence was an integral part of our early ancestors lives – much so than today. Since cooperation rendered more results and enhanced their chance of survival more than sheer brute force, testosterone levels plummeted. Less testosterone is linked with smaller craniofacial structure.

In the meantime, until a better explanation (based on evidence) surfaces, you might as well put chins alongside appendixes and men’s nipples. I’m being mean, though. At least chins are good for something – saves you from a life of weirdness. Keep that chin high, you deserve it!


Transition to civilization led to drop in testosterone

A composite image shows the facial differences between an ancient modern human with heavy brows and a large upper face and the more recent modern human who has rounder features and a much less prominent brow. The prominence of these features can be directly traced to the influence of the hormone testosterone. Photo Credit: Robert Cieri, University of Utah

According to a new study published in Current Anthropology, our transition into modern civilization has probably coincided with a drop in testosterone. It’s very likely (though not entirely proven) that it was the transition to civilization that precipitated the drop.

University of Utah biology graduate student Robert Cieri analyzed 1,400 ancient and modern human skulls, showing that some 50.000 years ago, when human civilization was starting to be developed, a drop in testosterone also came into place. Skull shape and testosterone levels can be associated, and the decrease in testosterone can be “mapped” by changing skull anatomy.

“Humans are uniquely able to communicate complex thoughts and cooperate even with strangers,” Cieri says. “New research on fossilized Stone Age humans from Europe, Africa and the Near East suggests these traits are linked, developed around 50,000 years ago, and were a driving force behind the development of complex culture.”

It is currently accepted that modern humans, Homo sapiens, appeared about 200.000 years ago, but evidence of civilization, such as symbolic or cultural artifacts and modern tools were only found from 50.000 years ago – about the time when their faces started to become more feminine.

“Human fossils from after modern behavior became common have more feminine faces, and differences between the younger and older fossils are similar to those between faces of people with higher and lower testosterone levels living today,” Cieri says.

It is important to note that lower testosterone is associated with tolerance and cooperation in bonobos and chimpanzees, and with less aggression in humans. It seems very plausible that as humans started to group up in larger and more interconnected settlements, they needed to find less violent ways to sort out their problems – and in the long run, the non-violent path won. This may be the cause, perpetuated by natural selection, or there might be something else involved

“Whatever the cause, reduced testosterone levels enabled increasingly social people to better learn from and cooperate with each other, allowing the acceleration of cultural and technological innovation that is the hallmark of modern human success,” Cieri says.


First complete cranium replacement performed using 3D printing


Many herald 3-D printing as a new wave set to revolutionize manufacturing in the 21 century. I fully agree in most respects, however the benefits medicine can achieve through this technology haven’t been stressed enough, maybe. There’s a pen that 3-d prints bone directly on lesion sites, 3d printed skin or prosthetic. It’s the field of medical implants, however, where 3d printing is proving to become a game changer. For instance, surgeons in Holland recently replaced the cranium of 22 year-old woman with a custom built synthetic version that fits the patient perfectly – a procedure otherwise extremely difficult if not impossible to perform.

The woman from a rare form of bone ailment which caused her skull to grow three times large in thickness than it was supposed to. The pressure caused extreme pain to the patient and in the later stages leading to the surgery, the woman reported loss of vision and motor skills. Without this cranium replacement, she would have surely died in a few years. A video below shows how the surgery was performed, be warned of graphic images.

Doctors at Utrecht Medical Center in the Netherlands used a 3D printer to build a plastic prosthetic bone for what they said was the first full-skull transplant, Dutch News reports claim. In reality, the headline is misleading since the skull contains both cranium and facial bones – only the cranium was replaced.

“Implants used to be made by hand in the operating theatre using a sort of cement which was far from ideal,” Dr. Ben Verweij, a neurologist who led the medical team at Utrecht, told Dutch News. “Using 3D printing we can make one to the exact size. This not only has great cosmetic advantages, but patients’ brain function often recovers better than using the old method.”

Just a few years ago, there would have been no viable method to deal with the woman’s condition. Traditionally, cranium implants are made using in the operating room out of a type of cement. As you might imagine, these can’t be built with maximum precision and tend to be ill fitted. Considering a total cranium replacement was in order, no other way but printing the cranium to the millimeter to fit properly was possible. The implants are attached with titanium clasps and screws, and once secure, the scalp is re-attached.

In 2013, an American underwent a similar procedure after 75 percent of his skull was replaced with an implant printed by 3D technology. These sort of procedures will undoubtedly become more common, although not for cases such as extreme as these. Every year there are thousands of people  that suffer skull damage and brain swelling after an accident or caused by tumors.

Photo: Cambridge University

Crania Americana: the most influential book on scientific racism

For men of simple means and upbringing, it’s easy to credit racism: the other fellow is different from me – his skin is of another color, his hair is weird, his language sounds stupid. Racism has had a wicked role to play in society since antiquity, fueling the murders and enslaving of millions of people and culminating with the great holocausts of the XXth century. Racism doesn’t pertain to a certain upbringing or education, however. Even in the so-called enlightened times of the XIXth century, many of the world’s elite were self-professed racists, though maybe not by this exact terminology.

Photo: Cambridge University

Photo: Cambridge University

In 1839, Samuel George Morton published his magnum opus, the “Crania Americana”, a book that covers over 78 illustrations of skulls, from embalmed heads to bullet perforate skulls. The work is considered the most distinguished and thorough book on scientific racism. It opens with an elaborated division of mankind into five fundamental races, before explaining how each race poses a particular character related to its skull shape. Morton wrote of Native Americans that “the structure of his mind appears to be different from that of the white man”.

You may have heard about this sort of reasoning, which was so popular in the XIX century and later on. It’s called phrenology, a pseudoscience whose central theme is to relate bumps in the head with personality traits. Phrenology was developed by a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s. Gall noticed that the cerebral cortex of humans was much larger than that of animals, which he believed was what made humans intellectually superior. Eventually, he became convinced that the physical features of the cortex could also be seen in the shape and size of the skull.

Science and racism

The core idea behind phrenology is that moral and intellectual abilities are totally innate, that the brain was composed of as many organs as there are different faculties, propensities and sentiments, and that the form of the skull represented and reflected the form and development of the brain organs.

One of the illustrations featured in the book shows a skull punctured by a bullet. Photo: Cambridge University

One of the illustrations featured in the book shows a skull punctured by a bullet. Photo: Cambridge University

I won’t go into too many details, but needless to say, Morton went a step further and applied this sort of reasoning not to individuals, but to whole races, after observing there were certain skull features that were a common function of race.  Morton believed that cranial capacity, the size of the skull, gave an accurate measure of intelligence. The bigger your skull, the bigger your brain, the smarter you were, so Morton collected thousands of skulls and measured their cranial capacity. His study led him to claim, among other, that Native American skulls were actually of a different consistency to Europeans, and went on to describe them as a whole as “adverse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge.”



“The Caucasian Race is characterized by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint; hair fine, long and curling, and of various colors. The skull is large and oval, and its anterior portion full and elevated. The face is small in proportion to the head, of an oval form, with well-proportioned features. . . . This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments. . . . The spontaneous fertility of [the Caucasus] has rendered it the hive of many nations, which extending their migrations in every direc-tion, have peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants. . . .”

Today, these sort of claims would be labeled as politically incorrect, to say the least, but his book stirred quite a few leading figures in the scientific community and earned him a solid following. Only 500 copies were ever printed with no more than 60 being sent outside of the United States, but even so, a couple of these precious few made their way on the shelves of the most distinguished libraries in the world.

A book that gave people what they wanted to hear, not the truth


In this day and age, you might find his findings nothing more than crackpot gibberish, but back in the day, Crania Americana was endorsed by the likes of Charles Darwin who considered Morton an “authority” on the subject of race.



“Characterized by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick, and the mouth wide; the head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheekbones prominent, the jaws protruding, and the chin small. In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity. . . . The moral and intellectual character of the Africans is widely different in different nations. . . . The Negroes are proverbially fond of their amusements, in which they engage with great exuberance of spirit; and a day of toil is with them no bar to a night of revelry. Like most other barbarous nations their institutions are not infrequently characterized by superstition and cruelty. They appear to be fond of warlike enterprises, and are not deficient in personal courage; but, once overcome, they yield to their destiny, and accommodate themselves with amazing facility to every change of circumstance. The Negroes have little invention, but strong powers of imitation, so that they readily acquire mechanic arts. They have a great talent for music, and all their external senses are remarkably acute.”

Now, James Poskett from Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science is trying to unravel how  Crania Americana became so influential throughout the world, and how the ideas postulated in the book shapes beliefs.

“This research is crucial for understanding how racist theories gain credibility,” said Poskett. “Particularly in the early nineteenth century, European scholars tended to treat American science with suspicion. Morton had to work hard to convince his peers across the Atlantic that Crania Americana should be taken seriously.”

While Morton’s idea can be considered at present unfounded, the book gained considerable traction and helped American science launch itself on European soil, where leading figures there were still skeptical of research made in the new world. It does shine in one whooping respect, however – the illustrations are completely stunning!


Native Americans

“The American Race is marked by a brown complexion; long, black, lank hair; and deficient beard. The eyes are black and deep set, the brow low, the cheekbones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid [swollen] and compressed. . . . In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure. They are crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives. They devour the most disgusting [foods] uncooked and uncleaned, and seem to have no idea beyond providing for the present moment. . . . Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood. . . . [Indians] are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects. . . .”

These were made by Morton’s artist, John Collins, who used a novel technique at the time called lithography. In the lithographic process, ink is applied to a grease-treated image on the flat printing surface; nonimage (blank) areas, which hold moisture, repel the lithographic ink. This inked surface is then printed—either directly on paper, by means of a special press (as in most fine-art printmaking), or onto a rubber cylinder (as in commercial printing).

Particularly, in this case, Collins drew his images on limestone blocks in wax before fixing, inking and printing. The limestone allowed Collins to create fine-grained textures, reproducing the subtle contours of each skull in Morton’s collection.

“Crania Americana was the first example of American scientific lithography to gain widespread acclaim in Europe,” said Poskett. “The textured effect also allowed men like Prichard to make the perverse claim that Native American skulls were actually of a different consistency to Europeans.”

The illustrations are now on display at the Whipple Library. You can view a scanned version here.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that “Crania Americana” was published in 1878. It was actually published in 1839. 

american skull

American skulls have significantly gotten larger in the past seven generations, and still growing

american skullA new study from anthropologists at University of Tennessee analyzed the skulls of caucasian American men and women from between the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Their findings showed that the average American’s skull today is larger and narrower than it used to be seven generations ago.

In total, over 1,500 skulls have been analyzed, and though humans are taller, in general, than they used to be, say a hundred or two hundred years ago, the growth in skull size is disproportional to the rest of the body, suggesting other factors are at work.

“The varieties of changes that have swept American life make determining an exact cause an endlessly complicated proposition,” says Lee Jantz, coordinator of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC).

“It likely results from modified growth patterns because of better nutrition, lower infant and maternal mortality, less physical work, and a breakdown of former ethnic barriers to marriage. Which of these is paramount we do not know.”

The researchers found that the average height from the base to the top of the skull in men has increased by eight millimeters, or about a third of an inch, resulting in an increase in skull volume of around 200 cubic centimeters ~ just about that of a tennis ball. In women, the corresponding increases are seven millimeters and 180 cubic centimeters.

Are American brains getting bigger too? Well, for one brain size had been found to be correlated with skull size in previous studies, but this has not been proven yet, given the short supply of 1800s brains, probably…

Is the increase in skull size part of a larger pattern of the human body growing in general? Like I said earlier, humans have grown taller than they used to. Body height has increased by 5.6 percent and femur length by two percent, the UT study shows, while skull height  has increased 6.8 percent since the late 1800s. Also the study found that Americans are maturing faster than before. A separation in the bone structure of the skull called the spheno-occipital synchondrosis, which in the past was thought to fuse at about age twenty, is now fusing much earlier – 14 for girls and 16 for boys.

One possible reason is America’s obesity epidemic.

“This might affect skull shape by changing the hormonal environment, which in turn could affect timing of growth and maturation,” says professor emeritus  Richard Jantz.

“We know it has an effect on the long bones by increasing muscle attachment areas, increasing arthritis at certain joints, especially the knee, and increasing the weight-bearing capacity.”

Previous studies have also revealed an increase in skull size among European populations, however not this significant. The team of researchers presented their findings at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting in April.


Ancient Brits made goblets from skulls

Britton skull goblets - similar to this, only real

Nowadays Brits may be some of the most civilized people on Earth, but 15.000 years ago, things were really different. Ancient Britons devoured their dead and made ritualic goblets from their skulls, a study conducted by London’s Natural History Museum concluded. The gruelsome discovery was made in Southern England, more specifically in Gough’s Cave in the Cheddar Gorge in the southwestern English county of Somerset.

The process was a pretty elaborate one; after they ate the dead, they cut the skin to the bone, then they removed the facial bones and smoothed the edges to create skull cups, as researchers wrote in PLoS

“All in all it was a very painstaking process given the tools available,” Silvio Bello, paleontologist, said in a statement. “It’s impossible to know how the skull-cups were used back then, but in recent examples they may hold blood, wine or food during rituals,” said Chris Stringer, who helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987.

The circumstances of the deaths however, remain a mystery. It’s uncertain if it was enemies who were “used” in this way, or if it was a sign of respect, or some other form of manifestation. Drinking from skulls is not that uncommon, and has also been recorded with Vikings, Australian Aborigines and in tantric Buddhist rituals. You can see a precise cast of one of the skull-cups, complete with cut marks in the London museum, from March 1.