Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Palaeoanthropology For Free!

Jean-Jacques Hublin, one of the most well-respected palaeoanthropologists has written a short piece for Nature News on the state of access to biophysical data.  He writes:
Being refused the right to examine a sought-after specimen is a common experience in the professional life of a palaeoanthropologist. Too often I have heard in the back rooms of museums that “nobody can find the key to the Neanderthal's cabinet”, “the fossil is away on exhibition” or “it is currently being reconstructed”. Human fossils that make international celebrities of their discoverers are difficult to find in geological strata, but they can become unreachable relics when they are in storage.
Been there, done that. It is no fun. Milford Wolpoff wrote once upon a time that he was allowed to see the Bodo face and partial cranium only under the conditions that he was not allowed to take pictures or measurements of it. He wrote (paraphrased) that he was surpised that it was "not facing the wall, out of respect."  But things have changed.  Hublin continues:
The release online earlier this week of a large series of palaeoanthropological data — produced by my department from the hominin collection of the Kromdraai B site near Johannesburg, South Africa — is an important new step (; see also M. M. Skinner et al. J. Hum. Evol. 64, 434447; 2013). This collaboration between the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria and the MPI-EVA makes images and three-dimensional surface models of each Kromdraai specimen freely accessible. Highlights include the type specimen of Paranthropus robustus first described in 1938, as well as some never-published specimens. Researchers can also download the microCT data through a password-protected system controlled by curators of the Ditsong Museum. To move forward, the field requires such offerings to become more widespread.
One can only hope that this will be seen as a model for others to follow with regard to the data. It is clear that, when one plows through the three volume set by Oakley (and other volumes that have come out since) there is a veritable ton of material to process but in this day and age, it would be an incredible boon to researchers and would vastly expand the field.When Bill Howells went around the world measuring modern human crania and publishing it, when it became computationally feasible, he turned the entire collection loose on the world.  I, along with countless other Ph.D. students, used it in my dissertation. 

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