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The Skull

Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 03:58 PM

Today, the story of one little thing that has radically changed what we know about humanity’s humble beginnings and the kinds of creatures that were out to get us way back when.


Wits University Professor Lee Berger and Dr. Chris Stringer from London’s Natural History Museum explain how a child’s skull, found in an ancient cave, eventually helped answer one of our oldest questions: Where do we come from? Then Lee takes us on a journey to answer a somewhat smaller question: how did that child die? Along the way, we visit Dr. Bernhard Zipfel at Wits University in Johannesburg to actually hold the skull itself.


We wanted to give you a chance to hold the skull, too. So we did a little experiment: we made a 3D scan of it. If you visit our page on Thingiverse, you’ll see the results. Anyone with access to a 3D printer can print their own copy of the skull. (We printed a bunch, with help from our friends at MakerBot—there’s even a purple one with sparkles.)


We also collaborated with the folks at Mmuseumm, a tiny (really tiny, it’s in an elevator shaft) museum in Manhattan. You can visit them to see the 3D printed skull, along with the other wonderful things in their collection: mosquitoes swatted mid-bite, toothpaste tubes from around the world, and much more.


Thanks to JP Brown, Emily Graslie and Robert Martin at the Field Museum in Chicago for scanning the skull. Thanks to Curtis Schmitt and shootdigital for refining the scan. Thanks to Bre Pettis and Jenifer Howard at MakerBot for guiding us through the world of 3D printing.


 

Guests:

Lee Berger, Chris Stringer and Dr. Berhard Zipfel

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Comments [36]

Sue

This story made me think that a good way for scientists to really know their evidence(the/skull) would be to draw it. You really have to look when you draw, and that way come to see all the details. Maybe we depend on technology to see for us too much, as in the 3d printing, and so don't experience the information ourselves.

Jul. 17 2014 03:41 PM
Ann Oliva from Maui

Are transcripts available for this episode? I'd love to use it for class and "print" the skull. Talk about a wonderful visualization of a story.

Jul. 13 2014 03:40 AM
Matte from Singapore

I recently listened to an episode of the "Criminal" podcast and found this one to be eerily similar - in the best way possible.

Jul. 07 2014 12:44 PM
Chris Boynton from New York, NY

If you like 3D scanned and printed skulls you should go see www.fireandbone.com. We make beautiful miniature skull replicas using 3D scanning and printing!

Jun. 26 2014 12:45 PM

I'm a primatologist at Penn State university, and I'm pretty sure this podcast uses chimp calls when talking about vervets! That's a mistake that should be correctly, like talking about horses while using a pig soundtrack. Please fix, radiolab! You guys are so great- don't make such a mistake :)

Jun. 22 2014 11:20 AM
Maureen from California

But isn't it also possible that the bird that left the marks in the eye socket was not the predator actually responsible, but rather a scavenger cleaning the carcass?

Jun. 21 2014 11:34 PM
shawn Dean from Arcata, Ca

I love this article i just 3d printed me one just now!!!!

Matthew Nevins from Marshalltown, Iowa see my facebook page to get help getting your hands on one too !!!

https://www.facebook.com/InPrintingInventInspire?ref=hl

Jun. 12 2014 10:33 PM

Matthew Nevins & Melissa from Stoughton, MA — please shoot me a quick email at curtis@shootdigital.com. We can send you pricing for your very own Taung Child skull.

Jun. 09 2014 01:33 PM
Matthew Nevins from Marshalltown, Iowa

I love all of your podcasts. I was wondering if you know of any web pages that would take a scan and print the 3D scan of your choice and send it to you for a price. I am a teacher and I think that getting the skull for my class room could emphizize the importance of birds and their prey. Thank you,

Matthew Nevins
Marshalltown, IA

Jun. 05 2014 05:08 PM
Julian

What is the song that starts playing at around 6:50? The one with the piano and cello. I've been going crazy trying to figure it out.

Jun. 03 2014 01:59 AM
Melissa from Stoughton, MA

Thanks guys for turning so many on to the Taung child. She's a truly amazing fossil find. Taung played a large part in my master's thesis, specifically her natural endocast. I love the fossil so much I even have her tattooed on my hip! I would love to get my hands on a 3D replica.

Jun. 01 2014 09:02 PM
kz from London Ont, Canada

Just found radiolab. Thank you for sharing this knowledge and understanding of the worlds history to all of us. Incredibly enriching and important information being transmitted. love and respect!

Is there a podcast pertaining to Gobekli Tepe?

May. 28 2014 05:50 PM
Brad from Minneapolis

I uploaded to my Shapeways account. I didn't add any cost to this (I'm not making any money from it).
Depending on the material used, it can get pricey!
https://www.shapeways.com/model/2010458/?li=aeTabs

May. 27 2014 02:53 PM
DR.Phile

meow

May. 27 2014 01:55 PM
Jay Turberville from Fountain Hills, AZ

The video of the golden eagle attempting to snatch the child is fabricated. It is the product of the work and imaginations of some graphic art/animation students in (I believe) Canada - an exercise in their craft.

May. 26 2014 06:43 PM
Patrice Showers Corneli from Salt Lake City

In 1978, I conducted a summer long study of pronghorn fawn mortality on the National Bison Range in Montana for my MS in Wildlife Biology under Bart O'Gara's supervision. Every one of the 93% of all fawns there that year were killed by predators - most by coyotes, a few by bobcats and four by eagles. The marks on the dead fawns are very very different among the three predators.

The talon marks on the eagle-killed fawns were unmistakable on the back of the fawns on either side of the spine. One of my undergraduate field assistants observed one of the eagle kills and described the flight of the eagle with the fawn in it's talons.

Of course carrying off these kills was made possible by the ridge top updrafts on the small mountains on the BR. This made it easy for the eagles to get the prey to their nests.

The eagles in Africa are a lot bigger than golden eagles so it is not at all surprising to me that a small human could be carried away.

I am puzzled why as late as the 90's, anyone felt it necessary to test the capability of an eagle to perform this feat. Too little communication across the disciplines?

May. 23 2014 06:42 PM
Mai

Anyone manage to price this out with Shapeways?

May. 23 2014 06:03 PM

I don't usually do this, but can someone please tell what is the melody in the background that starts at 14:45? It's just one of those clicks...

May. 23 2014 11:22 AM
Verrol Adams from San Jose, CA

For anyone interested, Treofab (http://www.treofab.com) offers 3D printing and customize service for just about 3d model. Full disclosure, I am associated with Treofab. We offer easy and quick price quotes too. Have a 3d model? See where you can get it printed cheapest for the materials you want. We also have patent pending technology to print in color on virtually any 3D printed material.

Do check us out http://www.treofab.com or email us at support@treofab.com

May. 22 2014 09:01 PM
Christian

Couldn't resist leaving another comment.
Still today a bird considers us fair game.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJmd606LKYw

May. 21 2014 10:01 AM
Prof. Lee Berger from South Afrca

Do you want a 3D scan of sediba for the same purpose?

May. 20 2014 02:05 PM
Keya Mukherjee from Australia

My whole life people have mocked my fear of birds calling it "irrational" - good to know there is reason behind it! Read more about my experience on my blog: http://whensaturnreturns.wordpress.com/2014/05/18/radiolab-proves-my-fear-of-birds-is-legit/

May. 19 2014 08:20 PM
Curtis Schmitt from New York, NY

For anyone interested in buying a replica of the Taung Child skull, please contact me — curtis@shootdigital.com. We're the company that refined the 3d scan and we offer the highest-end 3d printing service. You'll see two photos of what our 3d print of the skull looks like under the "makes" section of Radiolab's Thingiverse page at http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:332463 We can ship it to you within 24–48 hours! See more of our work at 3d scanning and 3d printing work (of skulls and so much more) at http://www.shootdigital.com/3d If you're in the NYC area, please feel free to stop by. :)

May. 19 2014 11:17 AM
Gale

As to "Cats just feel tougher than birds" at 14:50...

It depends on what birds you are talking about... For instance...

This bastard bird from hell here.. http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdlh8iKwxY1r38ji3o1_500.jpg

I've had trouble finding exactly when Phorusrhacidae went extinct officially, but they were definitely around during the last ice age... And probably recent enough to have gutted some of our earliest ancestors... And, apparently, it's bones have been found in the same area as the remains of early South American humans...Not an expert so don't quote me on that last part. The oldest human remains in south america which I am aware of are only 22,000 years old, and the species was suppose to have died out much earlier...

Just to give proper scale... think about 30% larger than an ostrich, and carnivorous in nature. They were a thing of nightmares... Which is likely where they get the name "Terror Birds".

Another bird which could easily have dined on humans would be Haast's Eagle. A bird with a 10 foot wing span, which fed on defenseless Mua birds....

How ever, there is a bird alive and well today that still poses a threat to modern human beings. With a wingspan of up to 7 feet.. It is called the African Crowned Eagle, and sometimes "The leopard of the sky". It is capable of preying on animals up to 64 pounds, and the bulk of it's diet is primates and other mammals, and if you are wondering, yes, human children 9 years old and younger are included in the "primates" category. Just the bird happens to be endangered and it's hard for conservationists to get people on board to "save the baby eating eagles". A Crowned Eagle is likely what killed the humanoid child in the story above.

If you don't think birds are "tough", you've never looked a bird of prey in the eye.

May. 19 2014 03:51 AM
Christian from Santa Barbara, CA

The first nightmares I ever remember having as a toddler was a repeating theme of a mother bird wanting or threatening to get me and feed me to it's offspring. The bird actually talked to me and would tell me "I'm going to get you!" It was oddly sexually arousing at the same time. Very strange.

May. 18 2014 05:40 PM
Owen from ann arbor mi

John, our 3D Printing service, thingsmiths, is Michigan based and printing one as I write. We're in Ann Arbor, you're always welcome to come check it out!

May. 18 2014 02:05 PM
Matt from Newcastle, Australia

This makes me think about what it would be like to be caught by an eagle. Are you conscious as it carries you away, can you struggle? When exactly does it kill you? I can't help feel a little empathy for my long distant ancestor.

May. 17 2014 07:41 PM
Philip from Berlin

John, you can just upload the 3D file of the skull to any 3D printing service (e.g. Shapeways) and they will print it in your desired size and material and mail it to you.

May. 17 2014 03:54 PM
John Linstrom from South Haven, MI

Can we purchase a 3D-printed replica from Radiolab?

May. 17 2014 10:08 AM
Alden Rogers from Denver CO.

It's sad to me that so many 'rational' scientists seem to want to ignore new factual revelations about things they like to pretend to be experts on like was mentioned here with the eagles having been the ones perpetrating the kill instead of 'theory' of large cats. That behavior is the opposite of what science is about.

May. 16 2014 08:10 PM
Scott Little from LA

Anyone know when birds first started making nests? Did any birds live in caves?

May. 16 2014 06:37 PM
mark from Marin, CA

I tweeted, I loved it.
Best @RadioLab story yet. There is an arc to this story that is simply elegant. Kudos!

This story will turn a lot of kids onto science.
The shadow KNOWS

May. 16 2014 05:25 PM
Justin Hubbell from Rochester, NY

I would have loved it if the acknowledgment of Europe's racist denial of human origins in Africa had gone beyond the few sentences in this episode.

May. 16 2014 04:00 PM
Sam from Chicago

Is it weird that I want my own printed replica? Without a doubt, one of the coolest stories I've ever heard.

May. 16 2014 03:16 PM
Mohamed from Santa Cruz

I got goosebumps when you talked about that feeling you get when you see a shadow on the ground.

May. 16 2014 01:20 PM
Josh from Grand Rapids

Stories like this are the reason I support this amazing show. Thanks guys.

May. 16 2014 07:43 AM

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