Anthropological Casting Call

John Hawks and graduate student Cassandra Gilmore examine a skull at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Portland, Oregon.

Ann Gibbons

More than 100 people gathered in a ballroom in Portland, Oregon, yesterday evening for an unusual cast party. The stars were not living actors, however, but the casts of skulls, bones, and teeth of important members of the human family. The fossils included the partial skeletons of Lucy from Hadar, Ethiopia; Australopithecus sediba from Malapa, South Africa; and the fingernail-size sliver of bone of a new type of archaic human from Denisova Cave in Siberia, Russia.

Paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, explained that he organized the 12 April share-and-tell session of published fossils at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists because many members have never even seen casts of important fossils, including Lucy, the 3.1-million-year-old member of Au. afarensis. As he lined up three skulls that showed changes in the evolution of the members of the human family from 1.8 million to 1.6 million years ago, Hawks said that seeing the fossils is the best way to learn about human evolution. "There are people in this association who are responsible for teaching evolution in the U.S. who have not even seen a cast of Lucy," he said.

The vice president of the association, Karen Rosenberg of the University of Delaware, Newark, asked Hawks to arrange the session after paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, donated casts of two partial skeletons of Au. sediba to the association. Hawks was able to gather casts from 17 institutions, including museums and universities in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.

Many of the graduate students, paleoanthropologists, and primatologists who examined the casts of skulls, teeth, and bones laid out on tables said they appreciated the access. "I'm looking at this cast for a reason," said Cassandra Gilmore, a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, as she examined the teeth in one skull very closely. Gilmore is doing her thesis on tooth loss before death in fossils, and she was able to take a look at casts of skulls that she had heard about but never seen.

Meanwhile, paleoanthropologist Bence Viola of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, was surrounded by a small crowd of researchers who wanted to see his casts of the molar and sliver of finger bone of a new type of human from Denisova Cave. Soon, a lively discussion about whether the teeth looked like those of other known fossils ensued.

Primatologist Adrienne Zihlman of the University of California, Santa Cruz, exulted: "This is so much fun," she said, as she took photos of the fossils and the researchers examining them. The mood was indeed open and upbeat: As Rosenberg said, "This is the world of paleoanthropology that I want to live in."