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3D Printing Helps Determine “What Killed Lucy”

March 2, 2017

Throughout the past several weeks, faculty and students in the biology and anthropology departments have been collaborating on a project, “What Killed Lucy,” using 3D printing and forensic anthropology to analyze the death of Lucy—a famous 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of the hominin species who has striking human similarities.

A 3D printer was used to create models of bones belonging to Lucy, a famous 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of the hominin species.

On Thursday, Feb. 23, Honors student Caelan Welch ’18, Dr. Fernando Ontiveros, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Kristi Krumrine, adjunct faculty member in the Anthropology Department, presented their findings from the research collaboration, which was organized by Dr. David Bell, assistant professor of anthropology.

A 3D printer creates a model of a bone belonging to Lucy—a famous 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of the hominin species.

A 3D printer creates a model of a bone belonging to Lucy—a famous 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of the hominin species.

Welch, who served as a student worker in the Anthropology Department, teamed up with Ontiveros to use the 3D printer to create true-to-size models of Lucy’s bone. The duo printed one bone every week, each bone taking between three to five hours to print. For the project, Welch and Ontiveros began printing bones on the Makerbot, which works by heating and melting plastic and depositing it into a designated place one layer at a time. Later on, they used the Form +1, a more advanced machine that uses laser-activated resin.

Once the bones were printed, Krumrine and the anthropology team performed a paleopathological analysis of the models to determine what may have caused Lucy’s death. Previous studies have drawn conclusions about Lucy’s death, but it has been a long-standing debate among researchers, said Krumrine. Prior studies suggested that the species spent most of their time in trees, but other researchers claim that the “suite of changes in their skeletons” would only have occurred if they were spending time on the ground walking upright, she explained.

Because the bones were printed with high quality resolution, Krumrine said that these models offered much more detail than regular casts and they were able to see and analyze the exact fractures that Lucy had when she died. By examining the fractures, one can infer that Lucy must have died from a fall, most likely out of a tree, first putting pressure on her feet and then bracing herself with her hands and arms, said Krumrine. With this knowledge, she supports the theory that the afarensis species most likely walked on ground but slept in trees, as sleeping on the ground would have been dangerous without shelter or fire.

“Even a minor fall that broke a bone could potentially be deadly if it impaired the ability to feed and evade predators,” Krumrine said.

Though just about 40 percent of Lucy’s skeleton has been discovered, strong inferences can be drawn about Lucy’s structure based on symmetry. A limited number of Lucy’s bones have been made available for printing, and Krumrine hopes that the complete remains will be made available for printing and further study in the future.

All three presenters agreed that the project offered an excellent opportunity for different departments and expertise to come together.

“It is unusual to find a satisfying response to a question without approaching the problem from multiple perspectives and disciplines,” Welch said. “For this project, it took one expert to study Lucy’s bones, another to scan them into files to be used for 3D printing, and without a team of archaeologists, Lucy would never have been discovered in the first place!”

The bones printed for the project, along with posters describing the research results, are on exhibit in the display case in the Basil Hall Lobby cabinet. The School of Arts and Sciences own three 3D printers, the Form +1, Makerbot, and M3D, all used for different purposes. Members of the Fisher community interested in creating a project or prototype of using 3D printing should email Dr. Ontiveros at