Valley of the Mastodons – final pictorial interlude

A final compilation of images and Twitter screenshots related to the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit!

KTLA anchor with Eric Scott and Kathleen Springer at the Western Science Center before filming for a TV spot about “Valley of the Mastodons.”  Notice the glassed display in the right corner: that’s where the fossils belonging to a mastodon nicknamed ‘Lil Stevie’ reside. They were taken out and studied during the workshop.

Brian Switek’s tweet picturing Eric Scott, Dr. Brett Dooley and Dr. Andrew McDonald (the new museum curator) taking Lil Stevie’s fossils out of the case for study.


Unsung hero Dr. Brett Dooley–who was responsible for extensive driving of paleos and writers to the museum and its events–and kind Dr. Andrew McDonald–newly hired museum curator who started work the week of the workshop!–removing Lil Stevie’s fossils.


The indefatigable Brittney Stoneburg–the Western Science Museum’s ‘Marketing and Events Specialist’–who made all of us feel at home and tended to a million details that ensured a marvelous experience and a smooth operation!

Another unsung hero: Darla Radford, Collections Manager at the Western Science Center!



Dr. Jeremy Green and Dr. Katy Smith taking measurements on one of Lil Stevie’s tusks.

Dr. Katy Smith measuring Lil Stevie’s fossils.


Brian Switek and Dr. Katy Smith

On the museum floor with visitors

Brian Switek and Dr. Ashley Leger on the museum floor



A great example of how Dr. Bernard Means (and often, Aubree, a student at the nearby Western Center Academy) digitalized fossils.

Pictures of Aubree, Dr. Bernard Means and Aubree’s dad, thanks to tweets by Dr. Bernard Means!


Dr. Chris Widga working on mastodon fossils, per a tweet from Dr. Bernard Means.


Victor de la Cruz, the Western Science Center’s Maintenance Technician, as he puts up the many white boards for the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit.

Some of the mastodon teeth and mandibles on display, pictures taken before glass was added and the exhibit was completed.

Dr. Alton Dooley, jr. with the Zygolophodon fossil on loan from the Alf Museum.

Kathleen Springer taking samples from a mastodon fossil to determine whether the black substance is carbon or manganese.

Dr. Chris Widga scanning the larger fossils for digitization.

Dr. Jeremy Green, PhD candidate Greg Smith and Michael Pasenko working on the mastodon nicknamed ‘Max.’


PhD candidate Greg Smith working on Max’s teeth.

Greg Smith and Dr. Jeremy Green working on Max. 

Greg Smith–remarkably patient and good-natured as I take yet another shot of him working on Max’s teeth. 


Dr. Alton Dooley, jr; Brittney Stoneburg; Max the Mastodon (mascot); Eric Scott; Dominic Cumo; Dr. Grant Zazula at the opening of the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit.

This is how I first learned of Dominic Cumo–through @MaxMastodon from #SVP2015!  It was an honor to meet him in person at the exhibit opening!!


Poet Christina Olson’s tweets; my favorite!



Images from my crappy cellphone: the view from my window as I left California at night and then the view as I arrived in NH at 10am the next morning.










3D Printing Opens Doors to Research – Jennifer Webb

Right now, in Michigan, an undergrad is studying the contours of fossils found half way around the world. Fossils that, in fact, continue to reside in their country of origin: South Africa.  She hasn’t traveled there; she doesn’t have casts of the fossils themselves.  What she does have, and what is steadily becoming available to other organizations, is access to 3D printers.

Jennifer Webb, with help from her advisor, Rachel Caspari, has been comparing 3D replicas of the famous Homo naledi fossils discovered in 2013 to the casts of early Homo sapiens fossils found in the 1960s and 1980s. Both sets of fossils were found in South Africa: Homo naledi in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave, and Homo sapiens at Klasies River Mouth.  But, so far, only one set has been dated.

Maker Bot Fossils By Monica Bradburn
Jennifer Webb w/MakerBot Fossils, photo by Monica Bradburn, courtesy of Central Michigan University


Jennifer’s goal: to determine the age of the Homo naledi fossils by comparing their physical attributes to this set of Homo sapiens fossils.

“Because the date [of Homo naledi] is unknown,” Jennifer explained, “we can use those traits to look and see if they’re similar [to the Homo sapiens fossils from Klasies River Mouth]. And if they are similar, then they are likely to be of a similar time period or age.”

This is important, as it would help us better understand where on the evolutionary chain Homo naledi can be found, and therefore, what physical attributes and possible social behavior developed when.

Klasies River Mouth Homo sapiens have been dated to about 120,000 years ago.  The caves at this location revealed periods of human occupation through sparse human fossils, shell middens and indications of ‘hearth activity’.  (Interestingly, one of the eggshells discovered belonged to an ostrich, a species that has not existed in the area since the Late Pleistocene.)


Klasies River Mouth - John Atherton


Klasies River Mouth Cave, South Africa; image taken by John Atherton, Flickr

In contrast to the small number of fossils at Klasies River Mouth, roughly 1550 specimens were excavated at Dinaledi Chamber—the largest set of hominin fossils found in the entire continent thus far.  Absent evidence of predator damage or remains, the 15 Homo naledi skeletons appear to have been placed in that cave deliberately.


Dinaledi Chamber Illustration


Figure 3. Cartoon illustrating the geological and taphonomic context and distribution of fossils, sediments and flowstones within the Dinaledi Chamber. The distribution of the different geological units and flowstones is shown together with the inferred distribution of fossil material.
DOI: 10.7554/eLife.09561.005


“My professor and I,” said Jennifer, referring to Rachel Caspari, “as long as we’ve known about this species, we’ve always been interested in it.”

But the path to actually studying Homo naledi didn’t appear until this past October, when Central Michigan University opened its Makerbot Innovation Center, making it unique amongst public Midwest universities.

And with access to 3D printers, Jennifer was able to make use of the digital scans and images provided on

2016-296-02 makerbot sj

One of the Homo naledi fossils as it is being printed; image courtesy of Central Michigan University

Maker Bot Fossils By Monica Bradburn

Rachel Caspari and Jennifer Webb with a 3D replica fossil; photo by Monica Bradburn; courtesy of Central Michigan University


Regular 2D printing has become so fast, so cheap, and so easy.  3D printing, on the other hand, is not necessarily any of those things.  At CMU, the cost of 3D printing is $.15 per gram.  It can take anywhere from 2 hours to an incredible 24 hours for something to print, depending upon various factors.  Most of the Homo naledi fossils took between 2 – 4 hours to create.

Having access to physical replicas of the originals is, indeed, exciting, but one wonders what challenges this might also present.

“3D printers can only be so accurate,” Jennifer replied. “The ones that we use are accurate to .2 millimeter difference. So we would have to factor in that amount of error into any of our analyses.”

“When we’re looking at the 3D-printed [fossils],” she continued, “they no longer have the coloring that the [original] fossils would have, which can also sometimes better indicate any dips or grooves or mounds. The best way we have to go around that is to look at the scans and pictures that we still have access to [from Morphosource] and compare them along with the 3D fossils that we printed.”

While researchers with access to the real Homo naledi fossils could perform isotopic analysis or radiocarbon dating, these procedures are both invasive and destructive to fossils.  Jennifer prefers to observe the physical traits themselves, preserving the fossils in their entirety.

“I love to be able to look at a set of bones, examine them, look at all their features and any marks or anything that’s on them and be able to tell a story from that,” she said.

This is no surprise, given that her interest in Forensic Anthropology—her intended course of study for her Masters—was prompted by the show, “Bones,” based on the life of Kathy Reichs.

Image from Bones by Michael Desmond/FOX

Bones – Season 5 – “The Proof in the Pudding” – Emily Deschanel, Tamara Taylor and TJ Thyne; Photo by: Michael Desmond/FOX


“I was afraid that, because it was a TV show, in real life it wouldn’t be the same. So I shied away from it in college in the beginning and started off with a different major. And then I discovered a Forensic Anthropology course that was being offered at CMU, and I decided to give that a try.  Once I did, I realized that it was very similar; there were a lot of things that were exactly like what they portrayed on TV. So I started getting into it more, and my interest grew.”

Before graduating this December, Jennifer will be presenting her Homo naledi findings to the American Anthropological Association in November.

Maker Bot Fossils By Monica Bradburn
3D fossil replica, by Monica Bradburn, courtesy of Central Michigan University


Many, many thanks to Jennifer Webb for her time and her great responses to my questions! A very special thank you to Rachel E. Perkins for reaching out to me about this story.

Further Reading:

  1. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South AfricaPaul HGM Dirks, Lee R Berger, Eric M Roberts, Jan D Kramers, John Hawks, Patrick S Randolph-Quincey, Marina Elliott, Charles M Musiba, Steven E Churchill, Darryl J de Ruiter, Peter Schmid, Lucinda R Backwell, Georgy A Belyanin, Pedro Bomhoff, K Lindsay Hunter, Elen M Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, James du G Harrison, Rick Hunter, Ashley Kruger, Hannah Morris, Tebogo V Makhubela, Becca Peixotto, StevenTucker; eLife, 10 September 2015
  2. We Are Made of Star Stuff, blog post on Twilight Beasts by K. Lindsay Hunter (one of the authors of the paper above and one Rising Star team who excavated the Homo naledi fossils)
  3. Fossils Come to Life 8,500 Miles Away, CMU press release by Rachel E. Perkins


Forthcoming books on hominins:

  1. Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, Lydia Pyne
  2. Almost Human, Lee R. Berger and John Hawks

Seven Skeletons Lydia Pyne

Almost Human Berger Hawks