Be Brief: Skull

By Allison Mills | Published

In anthropology, examining a photo of the 1.5-million-year-old skull of the Nariokotome Boy is just not the same as holding it in your hand.

Who would let an undergraduate palm a priceless fossil? Probably no one. But if it's a 3-D printed replica, then the whole class can have a turn. Using open source files from sites like, biological anthropologist Kelly Boyer Ontl teamed up with university library staff member John Schneiderhan to process the primate skull image files and render life-like plastic casts with a Type A Machine Series 1 printer. The skulls are 3-D printed versions of living and extinct primate species, including some early human ancestors. Students compare brow ridges, teeth, cranial capacity, and other characteristics to better understand distinguishing features of different species. The challenge for printing the hands-on teaching aids is creating a model that is easy to print but doesn't lose so much resolution that the skull's distinct topographies blur.

From top to bottom: Leontopithecus genus, modeled after a type of a currently living lion tamarin; Colobus guereza, modeled after a currently living colobus monkey; Homo naledi, modeled after extinct specimens from South Africa's Rising Star Cave; Homo Erectus, modeled after the Nariokotome Boy (Turkana Boy), an extinct species.

Primate species vary not only by size but also other features like eye sockets, teeth, brow ridges, and brain cavities.

Last Modified 3:49 PM, October 25, 2017

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.