Replicating Ancient African Hominoid Fossils

3D Printing & Imaging Education Science Workshop
Replicating Ancient African Hominoid Fossils

The African Fossils virtual laboratory website is a digital archeology project that seeks to increase public knowledge about prehistory by harnessing Autodesk 3D scanning technology. Recently, they wrote MAKE to tell us about their updated, newly re-launched website featuring stunning Sketchfab integration and downloads of prehistoric humanoid remains.


We at MAKE were excited about replicating history on our desktop and printed out our own copy of the 1.8 million year old Paranthropus boisei, also known as “OH 5”, “Zinjanthropus” (southern ape) or the “Nutcracker Man”.

Paranthropus Boisei Scan Shown in SketchFab

We’ve written about Sketchfab before, it’s a dynamic way to embed interactive 3D models on your site. Below is the actual scan of “Nutcracker Man”, discovered in 1959 by Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

OH from anvesoft on Sketchfab.

Here’s a little background about this piece of data: “This skull led to the first radiometric date of a prehistoric site of this antiquity. The date was found to be an extraordinary 1.8 million years. This find marked the beginning of the next five exciting decades of paleoanthropological exploration in East Africa. This species is distinct in that it has enormous cheek teeth, equipped for a diet of coarse foods such as tubers, sedges and grasses. The powerful chewing muscles attach to a pronounced ridge running along the top of the skull, known as the sagittal crest.” – from

Historical Background and Project Collaborators

For six decades and three generations, the Leakey family has collected thousands of fossils of human ancestors and other animals, as well as stone tools and other artifacts that are stored permanently in the National Museums of Kenya and at the Turkana Basin Institute.

Aware of the general inaccessibility of these national treasures in their current locations, Dr. Louise Leakey, a third generation of the ‘fossil hunter’ family, took it upon herself to find a way to make them globally accessible for educators, kids, and science enthusiasts. Inspired by the possibilities presented by new capture and digitization technologies, about two years ago Dr. Louise Leakey began a fruitful collaboration with Autodesk.  Other key collaborators on this project include: National Geographic,  Stony Brook University and the museums and institutes mentioned above.

The Digitization Process

Most of the models have been captured using photometry and an SLR camera mounted on a tripod. The software used to convert the photos into 3D digital models are: Autodesk®123D™ Catch and Autodesk® ReCap™ Photo. In addition some models were captured with a FARO arm laser scanner or the LMI Technologies structured light scanner.

The scanned collections include specimens housed in the National Museums of Kenya and the Turkana Basin Institute field stations. Some scans are taken from cast replicas rather than original specimens. The digital models on this site have been made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike License. Please refer to the Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions for more information.

Together, the team captured 3D digital models of the most significant fossils, and built a beautiful, interactive web site to host them. This virtual lab showcases a spectacular collection of fossils and artifacts found mostly at Lake Turkana in East Africa. The digital collection of animals, human ancestors, as well as ancient stone tools offers a unique tool for scholars and enthusiasts to explore and interact with the collection online. It also provides an opportunity to download models for 3D printing as well as to comment and share images of your favorite printed fossil objects on our forum.  Additional specimens will be added regularly to this online collection.

Fabricate Your Own!

Here’s the most exciting part; you can create your own personalized versions of these scans! has made the models available in two forms: STL files of the 3D models and 2D cutting patterns created using Autodesk’s 123D Make. The 3D models could be 3D printed or routed in wood, foam or other materials. The 2D vector files can then be lasercut or CNC routed into slices that can then be assembled by hand. If you don’t have access to digital fabrication tools, you can still play along at home. Print the 2D files out on paper, trace them onto cardboard, then hand-cut into slices. Regardless of how you cut the 2D files, you will still have to assemble the final model by hand.


Get Involved in the Community

Dr. Leakey would like to invite makers to use the skulls for classroom learning or for artwork mashups. Sharing your creations with community is encouraged and you can participate on the newly established forums section of the site.

Currently Available Models:

Although all the models posted on the site have “Download” buttons, we found that only 9 of the 40 models are actually downloadable. MAKE went through all the scans to see which were actually available now.

The following scans are available for your fabrication pleasure:

Louise’s team is busy digitizing further skulls and they will be continually updating the available scans. The collection will grow organically and dynamically, so keep your eyes peeled for a lot more to come!

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Anna Kaziunas France is interested practical digital fabrication focused project documentation (anything that turns codes into things), as well as adventures in synthetic biology, biohacking, personal genomics and programmable materials.

She's currently working on the forthcoming book "Design for CNC: Practical Joinery Techniques, Projects, and Tips for CNC-routed Furniture".

She’s also the Academic Dean of the global Fab Academy program, the co-author of Getting Started with MakerBot and compiled the Make: 3D Printing book.

Formerly, she worked as an editor for Make: Books, was digital fabrication editor and skill builder section editor for Make: Magazine, and directed Make:'s 2015 and 2014 3D Printer Shootout testing events.

She likes things that are computer-controlled, parametric, and open— preferably all three.

Find her on her personal site, Twitter and Facebook.

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Tatjana Dzambazova

Technology whisperer and product manager, reality capture and digital fabrication at Autodesk.

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