Making Models

March 2nd, 2020

One half of AnVRopomotron used photogrammetric scans that others have made, but the Scale Model Hall half is mostly my own creation. When I was just getting started with A-Frame, I experimented with building models just from primitive shapes, but concluded that learning low-poly style modeling was an attainable and more rewarding method. I modeled a gorilla after giving up on a chimpanzee. The gorilla worked out because it had larger shapes than the details of a chimpanzee’s anatomy. By chance the gorilla is also the largest living primate, which made it an interesting subject of comparison in a scale-based VR setting. I made the first final draft of the gorilla and moved from there.

{ Gorilla v2 (added big toes and re-colored) and mouse lemur to show extremes in modern primate size. }

{ Gorilla v2 (added big toes and re-colored) and mouse lemur to show extremes in modern primate size. }

My second model was the mouse lemur, the world’s smallest living primate. I followed the same tutorial to get started using a mashup of photo references from the front and side. The mouse lemur has more defined eyes and digits than the gorilla so I worked those out by using the knife tool to make new edges and pushing them into the right shapes. As with the gorilla’s head, I rendered the hands separately before moving them into place. I made one hand, mirrored a duplicate, and moved the fingers into different positions before attaching it to the other wrist. To put the small primate at eye level, I quickly made a simple branch structure out of distorted cylinders that the lemur could sit on. 

{ Look at those little fingies! }

{ Look at those little fingies! }

Continuing the biggest-smallest theme, my next model was the Gigantopithecus, the largest known primate ever. The new challenge this time was that there were not clear photo references. Since this prehistoric ape is only known from individual bones and teeth, there were many reconstructions but no clear front or side views. The benefit of this situation is that I could make my own version of this animal. One detail of Gigantopithecus reconstructions, especially sculptures, is that they are shown comfortably standing on their legs. Based on living great apes, Gigantopithecus would have been just as awkward standing upright as a gorilla or orangutan. I wanted to model my Gigantopithecus standing up as well, since the size is more impressive, but in a more realistic way. I used photos of orangutans standing on two legs as my reference since Gigantopithecus was a fellow Asian great ape. What the photos show is that orangutans often support themselves with their arms, such as by reaching up to a support. Since that further accentuates the height of the shape, I used that in my model. I debated whether to include orangutan face flaps or not. I settled on modeling them using the general rule that fossils are modeled based on the closest living relative.

 

The next sculpt was a combination past and present. I wanted to make the smallest known primate, Eosimias, but there is even less known about its appearance than Gigantopithecus. As a basal anthropoid, some where before the split of the monkey, ape, and human lineages. Based on its location in the primate family tree, the best guess is that it was a tiny generic monkey. Instead of modeling a generic monkey from scratch, I modeled a rhesus monkey first, then scaled it down and added more arboreal traits like a long tail to make the Eosimias. I placed it on the highest finger of the Gigantopithecus to really show off the variation in primate sizes. It’s basically invisible unless if you know where to look, but the info window for that display mentions the tiny primate. Its place in the room was temporary, though.

eosimias-draft

Part of the reference-finding process is referring to scientific descriptions of the anatomy, especially for extinct species. While looking at Eosimias research, I noticed that the oft-repeated fact that it was “thumb-sized” does not actually show up in the peer-reviewed literature. The comparison is also unclear as used in other media since human thumbs are different sizes and different sources disagree on whether the primate is compared to a thumb’s length or width. The research papers also never said it was the smallest known primate, and actually said it was roughly mouse lemur sized. Looking for what is actually considered an undisputed smallest known primate was a challenge. The current level of research points towards Archicebus as the title-holder, just a little smaller than the mouse lemur. I remade my Eosimias model to conform to Archicebus measurements, such as eye orbit and hand size. Unfortunately Eosimias no longer had a place in the site. 

{ Slightly less speculative Archicebus. }

{ Slightly less speculative Archicebus. }

I felt that I needed practice in 3D modeling to lead up to the next model: modern Homo sapiens. Humans have especially complex shapes in biology and clothing (I was certainly not ready to model a nude human). A new detail to consider is who should be the ‘representative’ of our species in AnVRopomotron. Our species is very diverse in physical appearance across spectrums of sex, skin color, and silhouette. Any choice would be unrepresentative of many of us at some level. I settled on Jane Goodall since she is a primatologist who contributed greatly to anthropology and to conservation. There are also good photo references of her from many angles. I modeled her in a walking and talking pose with hands entwined in front for comparison with the other models. She’s also rendered clothed in her field outfit, which fortunately had simple shapes with only a few complexities such as pant cuffs and a collared top. The original model color is the beige from her clothes so it is skin color agnostic. I later changed the color, as detailed below, but still kept it far from representing a human skin color.

{ Centerpiece v1 with flat colors. The Lucy model was a rough draft at this point. }

{ Centerpiece v1 with flat colors. The Lucy model was a rough draft at this point. }

 

The Gigantopithecus, Archicebus, and modern Homo sapiens were part of the centerpiece of the app. The last model for the first thing the user sees is Lucy, the famous Australopithecus. Rendering the human model made Lucy much easier, taking only days instead of weeks to get a usable sculpt. I thought of shaping a copy of the human model to Lucy, but decided that I could start from scratch even faster. By this time I start with a lot of the limbs separate to be joined later. This allows for a lot of posing without deforming the attached polygons. The separate parts were the head, neck, torso, upper and lower arms, upper and lower legs, and each hand and foot. There were ample photo references available for Lucy specifically and australopithecines in general. I debated the pose for a while. Most reconstructions are of her walking or standing still (with special mention for the twisted contrapposto figure in Australopithecus and Kin {Ward and Hammond, 2016}. One thing I see in a lot of descriptions that I disagree with is the abundance of human features in Lucy, especially her face. Based on just the skeleton, Lucy’s head was ape-like instead of human-like so she would have been closer to chimps in expression and mannerisms. My idea was to give her chimpanzee expressions, but ones that humans could relate to. I referred to the Great Ape Dictionary website, which has a video database of chimpanzee gestures. I chose the reach-palm gesture for Lucy to be welcoming to the user and to show off her long arms. With one arm extended out, the model looked extremely off balance. Her other arm had to pull back to be a counterweight, along with turning the body. The result shows a plausible way for a primate with those proportions to pose. 

{ First final centerpiece. }

{ First final centerpiece. }

The centerpiece went through several changes before the final final version. At first, they were all flat shaded with representative colors. When I started to color the other models, such as the gorilla and mouse lemur, with more detail, I hesitated to do the same for the centerpiece. The main reason was that I really did not want the human figure to have a realistic skin color (unfortunately a case of no one gets represented so everyone is equal). A solution I settled on was to take the centerpiece towards a stylistic direction. I recolored all of the models to the same bronzy shade and use Blender’s materials to make it shine like polished metal. This made the centerpiece look like its own finished piece instead of a rough version of the other models. 

{ Ooh shiny! Lighting, shadows, and reflections are all baked into the texture map. }

{ Ooh shiny! Lighting, shadows, and reflections are all baked into the texture map. }

I then returned to the rhesus monkey. I wanted something to prop up the model to human height so it was more visible. I was going make a quick rock, but a chance comment from my brother (“are you going to model microscopic things?”) inspired me to find something more creative. Looking at protein databases online led to a usable model of the antibody that fights the Rhesus factor in human blood. I expanded that model to be a meter tall and perched the monkey on top of it, adjusting its hands and feet to contact the protein model. 

{ Rhesus macaque and anti-Rh antibody v1. Shading of the antibody is based on a normal map baked in Blender. }

{ Rhesus macaque and anti-Rh antibody v1. Shading of the antibody is based on a normal map baked in Blender. }

These models became the first set that populated my Scale Model Hall. A future post will describe the making of the later models and further changes I made to the originals. 

 

References

Ward, C. V. & Hammond, A. S. (2016) Australopithecus and Kin. Nature Education Knowledge 7(3):1


AnVRopomotron Update Notes

February 24th, 2020

1.0.5 (next)

  • Next scale model: Philippine tarsier
  • Info button model looks more like the letter i. For info.
  • Male mandrill skull in the Grab Lab
  • Hippo ivory harpoon model fixed: normal map depths were too shallow.
  • Fixed bug introduced in 1.0.4 where stone tools could be picked up with the mouse in web browsers. No: VR only! The reason is that browser is grabbing is awkward. But:
  • Holoprojectors in the Grab Lab. I figure I should help out browser users, who are 99% of my viewership. Clicking an object now shows a rotating scaled up model to really get into their details. VR users can do too that but can still just move an object closer to their face.
  • Since photos worked so well in the Scale Model Hall, a photo will appear when an object is grabbed in the Grab Lab as well.

1.0.4 (03/12/20)

  • Updated A-Frame to 1.0.4 coincidentally. New features include better looking and smaller hands for VR grabbing.
  • Adding more artifacts to the Grab Lab:
  • It’s Christmas in Spring as The Smithsonian Institution has released over 2000 3D models for public use. There’s a lot of primate bones. The following are making their way to the Grab Lab.
    • Gorilla skulls, male and female
    • Gibbon, female
    • New baboon skull, male
  • Other sources of models yield:
    • Another Egyptian baboon figure
    • Clovis point
  • I’ve learned much about converting models for VR. I’ve gone back and made the Moundville pot both smaller in file size and better looking.
  • To accommodate the models, the Grab Lab space got expanded. Artifacts will be the starter items viewable from the entry point. The rest of the tables will be behind a wall because…
  • I have made my own version of ‘occlusion culling,’ a Javascript function to shorten render time by selectively not drawing parts of the scene that are not visible. Three.js already does culling by angle, so things behind the viewer are not drawn. I add on a manually-set culling by barrier, so things behind a wall from the viewer will not be drawn. I made this by putting down invisible planes (2D shapes, not Wonder Woman’s aircraft) on the ground that detect user collisions. Stepping on certain planes triggers a Javascript function to hide models that cannot be seen from that position. For example, stepping on a plane behind the wall in the Scale Model Hall makes all of the VR Grab Lab and entryway models disappear. The number of triangles drawn drops from 90,000 to 30,000. Of course, leaving the plane makes everything come back using more Javascript.
  • I’m getting better at Javascript. Tuning up old functions and reducing redundancy has shrunk the code from 26k to 8k (!!).
  • Also Javascript magic: stone tools are now rotated and hovering over the table for better visibility on non-VR devices.
  • Oh I made the ceiling blue as a lark but it looks fine so it’s here now.

1.0.3 (2/24/20) – What didn’t get changed

  • Megaladapis (koala lemur) has slowly climbed into the room! This extinct lemur was one of many species of enlarged primates found in Madagascar before the island was settled by humans. The model appearance is based on scientific research interpreting traits from skeletal finds. Focus was on the head, feet, and tail. The common name refers to their similar adaptations to the distant marsupial, just larger.
  • Added teleport movement with VR controller buttons thanks to Fernando Serrano’s component and Takashi Yoshinaga’s button-reading Javascript. Fun fact, the color of the teleport effect and the info orbs is “Keeley orange.”
  • Custom wall instructions by device: allows for larger text more visible from starting position
  • Grab Lab tables also rise for desktop browser
  • Redid textures for all scale models. Use of the UVPackmaster2 Blender add-on and a way to make models unlit with node setup (i.e. not affected by room light) improved model appearance and reduced file sizes. The centerpiece went from ~10 to ~4 MB since the new method allowed a smaller texture file to have equal quality as before. The drop in size means that it loads more quickly instead of popping in place long after everything else is there. I passed the file size savings to the rhesus monkey and orangutan, where I bumped up the texture size to reduce jaggies.
  • The gorilla is now colored correctly as an eastern lowland gorilla instead of a western lowland gorilla.
  • Mouse lemur has a new perch that matches the branches and vines motif of other models.
  • Orangutan model got a few new belly polygons to be slightly less boxy.
  • Notharctus now has grooming claws on the second toe of each foot.
  • Perimeter walls are also now using fake light technology (flat shading) to simulate different levels of shading without needing light calculations.
  • Scale Model Hall modern primate info buttons now also put Creative Commons photographs of the species on the wall. A 200k jpeg looks amazing blown up in VR!
  • Walking speed is slower on VR to reduce nausea but increased on web browsers for more zip.
  • Credits behind centerpiece now act as pages flippable by touching the nearby orb. Font size increased.

1.0.2 (01/29/20)

  • Added howler monkey model to Scale Model Hall.
  • Expanded Scale Model Hall space so you can walk around most models.
  • Moved gorilla+mouse lemur and rhesus monkey models behind Height Chart.
  • Fixed bug where reloading site on smartphones would ballistically launch objects as the tables are raised. The solution was to have the table rise with a slow animation instead of instantaneously jump into place, which you can see if you look to the right from the start.
  • Kept working on touchy controls. Limiting GrabStart- and GrabEndButtons in the Super Hands schema the same way I did in 1.0.1 for the objects seems to make all controls require a full press as intended. I don’t know what I just wrote either.

1.0.1 (1/14/20)

  • Removed triggerstart and pistolstart as ways to grab objects, and triggerend and pistolend as ways to release objects. This means that it will take a full button press or grip to activate objects.
  • Added instruction on Grab Lab wall to grab with one button at a time.
  • Added version number under big name text.

1.0.0 (1/13/20)

  • Public release. Hooray!

 

 


AnVRopomotron: The Origin

February 2nd, 2020

Over the last semester, I’ve been working on a virtual reality anthropology experience called AnVRopomotron. Getting the site to release involved a lot of learning in different areas. This is the start of a series of posts about the challenges I went through to get to make something I thought would be useful.

 

Ideas and Influences

Three influences led to the start of this project. One was my frustration during my lectures in conveying the size of modern and prehistoric primates. Particular visual aids helped, such as my versions of the life size Lucy and Nariokotome Boy cardboard cutouts from eFossils. There were so many other beings whose sizes could only be imaged with my verbal descriptions, though. (I tried drawing them on the whiteboard but it was time consuming and my depictions were poor.) Another influence was when I bought an Oculus Quest for myself on my birthday. The release date of this advanced and more-affordable VR coincided with my search for a present so I decided it was the right time to get into virtual reality. My only previous experience was a few minutes with the Tuscany demo using the first Oculus Rift at a comic convention. When I put on my own birthday goggles, I was completely absorbed by the technology and the worlds they presented. I conversed with Darth Vader (more accurately he towered over me when I fanboyed out). I used the Wander app to Google Street View every place I’ve ever been, then every museum I could find. I thought about making my own virtual museum. The third influence was actually years ago, when I pursued 3D modeling and printing as a hobby over winter break. I had no grand plans at the time, but working on my own 3D project gave me the starting skills to do something in virtual reality. If I could make my own VR experience, I could show students the size of the living things I talk about in class in a more immersive way.

 

How It’s Made

A-Frame turns WebVR programming into a HTML-like organized development platform. It simplifies the Three.js JavaScript library that has tools for VR rendering and adds its own components for manipulating objects, physics, and other conveniences. I went through the extensive documentation and tutorials then quickly put together a scene with a few scale polygons and some grabbable objects from the Internet.

{ Testing out polygon borders and grabbing. Note placeholder cylinders for what later became the bronze centerpiece. }

The terrifying beast was a ‘chimpanzee’ made of 3D primitive shapes like spheres and cylinders. That was my original idea for the scale models since they’re easy to make, but it turned out that they look extremely creepy.

chimp1

{ Proto-chimp model made up of primitive shapes. Besides being creepy, the round shapes also used too many polygons. }

I also thought of drawing cardboard cutouts and standing them up in 3D, but I concluded that I might as well make the most of the three dimensions by hand sculpting models myself. I had no desire to make photorealistic models, but I settled on making ‘low-poly’ figures that captured the general shapes of the subjects.

I settled on Blender as my 3D modeling program. When I made a 3D character for printing before, I actively avoided using Blender, the popular, powerful, free, but also complicated 3D modeling program. Years later, a lot of the software I learned have never updated or have been officially abandoned. I took on learning Blender to stay current with the software. It turns out that Blender has its quirks, but it is very understandable. Between then and now, from version 2.79 to 2.80, the whole user interface was rearranged for the better. It also helped that Youtube is full of Blender tutorials at all levels. There was even an extremely clear low-poly animal tutorial which directly applied to my goal. As I encountered challenges in Blender, a search for tutorials usually led to some solution I could use.

One challenge with modeling is that primates have very complex shapes. I envied the tutorial I followed because they were rendering a giraffe. Primates have more going on, such as fingers and toes instead of hooves, and nuanced curves in the head. I started out trying to render a chimpanzee from a photo reference, but it was a mess. I found a good side view of a gorilla and that became the first model I kept. I left off a lot of features, such as eyes, ears, nostrils, and individual digits except for the big toes. I ended up rendering the head separate from the body and joining the parts together once the features were defined. Those conceits aside, I was satisfied with the recognizable gorilla-ness of my model.

{ First version of the gorilla model with the crude chimpanzee. The yellow block is literally a meter stick to check scale. }

{ First version of the gorilla model with the crude chimpanzee. The yellow block is literally a meter stick to check scale. }

In the next post I will detail the making of the other models that I made, including a return to the gorilla to apply new things I learned. Until then, enjoy the experience!

AnVRopomotron 1.02


Introducing AnVRopomotron

January 13th, 2020

I am extremely excited to announce the availability of AnVRopomotron, a project that I have been working on for the past semester. It is a WebVR site that allows you to experience the scale and shape of anthropological forms. Right now, there is a small collection of models I made that reflect some of the largest and smallest primates past and present. There is also an array of 3D models made by others of fossils, bones, and artifacts. The artists have graciously bestowed these models with Creative Commons licenses so they could be adapted for use in my site. The AnVRopomotron experience works on smartphones and desktop web browsers, but it really shines in virtual reality. Using VR goggles, you can see the models relative to your own height and handle the small objects yourself. You should check it out now by clicking the image below and come back for an overview of what it does.

{ Click to Enter }

{ Click to Enter }

Overview
AnVRopomotron is a virtual museum of biological anthropology, with some archaeology included too. I aim to make the layout intuitive since many people are unfamiliar with virtual reality. From the start, you can see the centerpiece of the room, which shows four models that represent the breadth of biological anthropology. Along with the smallest and largest primates that have ever lived are the most famous fossil individual, Lucy, and a familiar-looking modern Homo sapiens. From there, you can get a closer look at the centerpiece, or explore one of the two modes that are visible to either side.

To the left is the Scale Model Hall of primates from the very large to small and from the past to present. I made most of these models myself based on many images online as well as scientific papers describing fossils. (A future post will delve into my modeling process and tips I have learned). My goal is cover the main primate lineages and key fossils first, and then model primates with unusual anatomy. Touching the orange information orbs on stands shows panels of information for nearby models.

On the right is the VR Grab Lab, where users with VR goggles and controllers can manipulate the objects to see them from all angles. On desktop browser and smartphones, the tables are raised to a more convenient height. (Another future blog post and Youtube tutorial will describe how I convert 3D models to be VR friendly). Touching an object will turn an information panel on and off on a nearby wall. The items reflect the availability of a good quality scan and its usefulness in showing something important about biological anthropology or archaeology. If you own a 3D model that you think would be a good fit, let me know!

 

Construction

This site would not have been possible without the help of a lot of programers. I used A-Frame to make AnVRopomotron. A-Frame turns WebVR programming into a HTML-like organized development platform. It simplifies the Three.js JavaScript library that has tools for VR rendering and adds its own components for manipulating objects, physics, and other conveniences.

 

Known Issues

While I worked to make the site as smooth as possible, there are a few issues in AnVRopomotron that I have not solved at release. If the site is refreshed, sometimes the grabbable objects are launched every which way or dropped on the floor. (There will be a future post on the strange bugs that I’ve run into). A more irksome limitation is that I could not make the site work via Google Cardboard, which is an accessible VR platform that works through smartphones. The issue is a combination of my Javascript inexperience and the goals of the A-Frame team. Instead, the site will attempt to access the device motion data for a ‘magic window’ view instead of full 3D. Lastly, touching the objects and orbs can also be finicky as the controls are very sensitive. Try to grab in VR with just one button instead of a realistic grip motion. If you have any leads on how a beginner Javascripter can solve these issues, let me know that too.

I will keep working on both halves of the site and add new features as I figure them out. I hope you enjoy what I made and find it educational for yourself and others.


A Real Guide to Virtual Museums

January 1st, 2020

Virtual reality presents an immersive way to learn about the natural world. There are apps for astronomy, historical sites, and lived experiences. One extremely powerful educational app is Wander, which turns Google Street View into a VR experience. I toured famous locations, found every place I’ve ever lived, and played a game with myself where I hit the random button and try to figure out where I am. I used the app the most for viewing museums around the world. Here is a list of my favorite tourable (not terrible) museums on Google Street View. 

 

Houston Museum of Natural Science (official site)

This modern looking museum is a treat in virtual reality. The prehistory section is expansive, with a lot of specimens set on inobstrusive white blocks. The paths through the section show a great use of winding corridors to make a space seem much more extensive than it really is. In real life, crowds could be a problem, but that’s no concern in VR. The poses of the fossils and models are extremely creative, along with colorful lighting. Watch a skeletal Homo sapiens get yeeted by a mammoth as another person takes aim with an atlatl. There are also mapped wings on local ecology, Egypt, and Precolumbian Americas. The VR experience makes this museum somewhere I have to go in real life.

 

 

 

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna)

This museum is in an opulent and historical building, but it is also a Tardis as it is far larger on the inside. The density of locations is so high that it can be confusing to navigate using the arrows and the map gives up and shows a blank building. However, if you click around you’ll be randomly teleported to any number of rooms of painstakingly organized specimens. There are rows and rows of present day biology, numerous dinosaur skeletons, and rooms representing human evolution. Paintings and interesting architecture frame every view. Tantalizingly, the room for the Venus of Willendorf is not mapped.

 

 

The Field Museum (Chicago)

This museum was a must-stop for me whenever I went to Chicago, and it is still impressive in virtual reality. From the old location of Sue, you can tour the also-famous habitat dioramas that wind through different regions and lineages of animals. On the other side, halls of Native American history and culture can be seen. 

 

American Museum of Natural History (New York City)

In real life, this is the best museum I’ve been to. The classic dioramas of taxidermied and modeled animals are viewable, though the two-story rooms can be hard to navigate. Random clicking may take you to either floor. It’s worth it to see each scene that encapsulates the ecology of a little slice of our planet, though. The halls of extinct dinosaurs and mammals, human evolution and cultural anthropology are also present.

 

Museo Nacional de Antropología (Mexico City)

The grandeur of this museum, which must be the largest anthropology museum in the Americas if not the world, shows through even in Street View. See the amazing displays of prehistoric Native American life, especially Aztec artifacts. There are many lifesize structures, from small living spaces to massive temple facades to take in. The northern wing also has human evolution exhibit, with a lot for paleoanthropologists and bioarchaeologists to view.

 

Those are big explorable museums on Google Street View or VR. In my scouring of the world for viewable museums, I also ran into a lot of smaller natural history spaces from Australia to Korea. Once you’re done with these, maybe we can go through some of the deeper cuts in virtual museums.


Announcing Chapter 12 of Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology

November 25th, 2019

My chapter in the new Open Education Resource (OER) Biological Anthropology textbook, Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology is now available! I was super proud to have been a part of this project and I researched and wrote something that I am very happy to see. I wrote Chapter 12: Modern Homo sapiens, which covers what happened to our direct species from 315,000 years ago to the distant future. There’s skeletal changes, artifacts, interbreeding, geographical expansion, technology, and more. The information and ideas I present are based on my own synthesis of active research in these areas. I contributed the text, but the illustrators deserve a lot of praise. They turned my crude mockups into clear figures with style.  

If you found this as a student reader of my chapter, then welcome! I worked hard, with the assistance of editors and reviewers, to present everything in a clear way and in an organized manner. When there are fascinating topics and information that I had to omit for the word count (I passed the limit already), I give you leads to pursue them on your own. The domestication of the chicken comes to mind. I also included Easter eggs that may perk you up as you read. Here are some questions that will point you towards some of them:

  • Which Mortal Kombat character’s name appears in the chapter?
  • In what context was renowned actor Nicholas Cage mentioned?
  • Which extinct megafauna is a favorite of researchers?
  • Where did the author get most of his coffee to fuel his writing?

On a more serious note, some textbook mainstays have been left aside on purpose so you can take a more active role in consolidating the information. Make your own mind maps, tables or illustrations of the following topics to get a big picture view of what went on in human evolution:

  • Skeletal Traits of Modern Homo sapiens
  • Timeline of Modern Homo sapiens Expansion
  •  Stone Tool Styles, Dates, and Features
  • Types of Human Social Organizations

If you found this writeup inadvertently, I hope you will give my free chapter a read. You’re in for a treat! I found so many fascinating discoveries and ideas in the research for this chapter. It is a human universal to ponder our origins, and what my chapter collects is what science has found about where we came from. You’ll learn that our past was complex, but full of wonder and even inspiration. The goal of the textbook was to be accessible so the writing gets out of your way from the knowledge within. Give the other chapters a read to learn what happened in human evolution before my chapter, and other topics about humans and other primates. 

For you professionals and already-informed who have read my chapter, thank you for checking out my take on modern human origins. As you know, our understanding of our own prehistory is still limited in many areas. What I wrote about topics such as behavioral modernity and the peopling of the Americas was my own stance informed by research. While I present multiple hypotheses in these situations, I purposely made it clear which one I believe is the strongest. Maybe future work will turn the tide another direction (especially ‘behavioral modernity,’ which seems like it is on the edge of a revolution), but the textbook reflects my most certain synthesis at the time of writing. This chapter reflects my long informed answer to the questions “where did our species come from and how are we what we are today?”

Overall I really enjoyed the challenge of writing a textbook chapter and the result as well. It means a lot to be connected with other educators and anthropologists in this textbook project and our collective work is amazing. Here is the link to the textbook website and my own chapter again because I really want you to read it.


 

Previous posts on the textbook:


Anthropomotron is Now Web-Only

July 4th, 2019

Well, July snuck up on me. Anthropomotron has left the App Store. There are two reasons for this move. One is that stature estimation has been a stable area of research with no major developments that demand further development of the app. The other reason is that it is pricey to keep the app on the iOS App Store. Combined, these reasons mean that I am paying a yearly fee for my app to sit in the store and be downloadable. If you are one of the 5,095 people who downloaded Anthropomotron for iOS, thank you and it should always be there unless if you delete it. I will leave the current version on the Google Play store for Android since there is no charge to do that, but I won’t develop it further. The web version will be the only official one and the only platform I will update. Thank you to everyone who downloaded, used, or shared Anthropomotron! I’ve only heard positive and constructive feedback, which I appreciate.

Here is web Anthropomotron.


We Are BADASS!

November 19th, 2018

The major professional organization for physical or biological anthropology is the AAPA, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Founded in 1930, the group has prospered to the present day as a force of scientific anthropology. The organization today is at a crossroads in determining its identity and its future. For the past year, the group has been considering changing its name for the first time ever. 

For better or for worse, the AAPA name has accumulated meaning that informs our current work. ‘Physical anthropology’ harkens back to a time when scientists measured the ill-obtained bones of oppressed groups and made racial conclusions from them. We… don’t do that anymore, so the pro-name-changers believe that our group’s name should better reflect what we actually do now. However, I think names can be inaccurate, a teaching point, a tradition, an albatross, and inspirational all at the same time. Changing the name is a stowing away from our messy history, which may be intended as a good public relations move to literally clear our name, but can also be seen as an effort to hide where our field came from. From the perspective of the student just hearing about anthropology for the first time, well they don’t really care how loaded the name is (source: how their eyes glaze over when I talk about the naming controversy).  

As the AAPA moves towards its name change, the organization put out a survey asking for opinions on the change in general and which potential name to adopt. Here, I will opine on the options. I have slightly reorganized the list to consolidate my thoughts.

  • American Association of Anthropological Sciences
  • American Association of Bio Cultural Anthropology
  • American Association of Biological Anthropologists
  • American Association of Evolutionary Anthropologists
  • American Association of Integrated Integrative Biological Anthropology
  • American Association of Physical and Biological Anthropology

Plus

  • Biological Anthropology Association of the United States
  • Society for American Biological Anthropologists

The AAPA was founded in the United States, but from the start it was open to international membership. Over the decades, more members from other nations have joined, making the group less and less American in makeup. This is to our strength, but it does make the name less and less accurate. The human world overall is more internationally connected today, too. The organization still emanates from the United States, but is that really worth naming the organization ‘American’ for that fact? If we are changing names, keeping this flawed label would be counter-productive. 

  • Association of Biological Anthropologists

This works, but is plain. While we’re scientists, some pizazz would be good to attract potential newcomers and get some name recognition. We have to consider media and social media today and how to bring attention to ourselves to spread our knowledge.

  • Biological Anthropology Association

BAA is a sheep sound, so no.

  • Biological Anthropology Association of North America

Sounds too much like BANANA, which is a disgusting fruit.

  • International Association of Biocultural Anthropologists
  • International Association of Biological Anthropologists
  • International Conference for Biological Anthropologists

Just as I’m not keen on pinning us to a particular nation, I think it’s implied that organizations are international unless if specifically named otherwise.

  • International Bio, Cultural Anthropology and Outreach Association

This one is very wordy and cultural anthropology is somehow more prominent in the name than our actual field of anthropology. Nope! And, while outreach is important and should be a part of every professional’s life, it’s not really name-worthy. It’s like adding Reading or Analysis into the name because it’s part of what we do. This name may be the one that sets the low bar so the other names are second-worst at worst. 

  • Society for Biological Anthropologists

The group is definitely a society (ranked hierarchy of interacting members) so it’s accurate. One problem is that the big archaeology group in the United States is the Society of American Archaeologists, so SBA name seems like a copy of SAA. Also, it’s a little plain and unpronounceable. Being able to be spoken as its own word (an acronym) makes the organization sound more open compared to being a string of letters (an initialism). Think of NASA or SHIELD versus IRS and CIA.

While I’m inclined to keep the current name, I do have some suggestions for possible name changes. These names are accurate and they’re true acronyms in that they’re pronounceable as words. We could be the:

  • Associate Body of Biological Anthropologists (ABBA)

I don’t think this name is taken?

Or, we could be:

  • Biological Anthropology Deme And Scientific Society (BADASS)

I know I am.

 


Summer Interacts Journal Debrief

October 19th, 2018

Fitting my physical/biological anthropology course into different time frames and formats throughout the school year brings up challenges. For example, putting the same number of assignments in the condensed summer schedule would mean that I would never stop grading. Many assignments were fixed in their placement in the schedule. That left the Interacts as the type that could be better adjusted to fit the situation. One way to keep the assignment but reduce grading is to change how often the assignment is due. If I made the Interacts take the same amount of work but due just at the end of the summer session, then students get the same experience while I save time. The easiest option was to do the Interacts as usual but due at the final exam. But, a change in the assignment format could make use of the scheduling change. The assignment is typically done with a strong online component as students search the Internet and peruse useful sites and apps. The issue is that students would be more inclined to put it off until the last minute if the assignment was not readily accessible. 

My solution was to make the Interacts into a paper journal assignment. I bought two cases of blank mini-journals from Dollar Tree, which arrived just in time for the start of the summer session. I adapted a lot of the usual Interact activities to be paper based. There was less online work, but more writing, drawing, and mind mapping. I wrote a list of general suggested activities. The main instruction: fill this journal by the final. In the participant observation spirit, I had my own journal, too. 

{ Pretty proud of this page, tbh. }

{ Pretty proud of this page, tbh. }

The goal of the Interacts Journal was similar to the usual version of the assignment: get students thinking about anthropology and science in their daily lives. The paper journal was a way to always make the assignment available as students went about their day. I also made two points. One was that they could do anything related to anthropology (which was everything). The other was that the journal was theirs to keep after I graded them at the final, so they should make it ‘their own.’ 

Doing my own new assignment was a valuable experience. I went through several phases of journaling. First I started out with drawing, but found that it was very time consuming. I switched to making lists and mind maps, then to the fastest way I discovered to finish a page: glue newspaper clippings related to the course. Even so, I found out that 60 4 x 6” pages were a lot to fill. When it was grading time, I managed my expectations accordingly. No student did the whole 60 pages. The ones who were engaged did 45 at the most. Most people did around 30, which was actually how many I had completed. The students who did the worst had around 10 pages with a suspiciously consistent look to the handwriting and very spread out content.

There were some unexpected outcomes that I could account for next summer. Two students lost their journals during the six week course and bought their own replacements. If I had known, I would have given them one of my extra journals. In a more uplifting development, a number of students went far in decorating the journal and putting a lot of work in the contents. Among the surprises was a 3D paper model of a DNA molecule, several thank-you notes to me on the last pages, and a list of the weird things I said during lecture. This last surprise was the best thing to have come out of my teaching career so far:

{ Did I say that? }

{ Did I say that? }

I could tweak the assignment next summer to make it even more successful for more students. For example, I could remind students about working on their journals more during the summer session. Having progress checkpoints may also keep work on the journals going, even if they were not graded until the end. While I kept my own journal, but could have shared what I had done to remind and inspire the class.

I made the Interacts Journal assignment partly to solve a time management problem as partly on a whim to try something different. I was very happy with the results even though my expectations going in were too high. Next time, I will have a tuned grading scheme and ready solutions for lost journals. Having journal check-in times over the course may also help stop procrastinators.


The Long Way

August 20th, 2018

It was my first semester of graduate school, fall of 2001. I was in a seminar class on paleoethnobotany, the study of ancient human-plant interactions, taught by Deborah Pearsall, who later become one of my doctoral advisors. In the ground floor meeting room of Swallow Hall, a small group and I were discussing what we read on the peopling of the Americas. What do we know for sure about the first Native Americans? We brought up key sites like Monte Verde and the evidence for different paths that people could have used at different times. There were a lot of data to explore, but they did not seem to form a consensus. Dr. Pearsall rephrased the topic to keep the talk going: what would you tell a class of undergraduate students about what we know about the peopling of the Americas?

“We don’t really know anything for certain,” I answered. Amused, Dr. Pearsall pushed for more: “Well you have to tell them something.”

Summer of 2018. I was now far from graduate school and writing a textbook chapter on modern human origins. I covered key evidence of an African origin and expansion through the Middle East, across Asia, and to Australia. The next section was about the peopling of the Americas.

I have to tell them something.

Seventeen years after that seminar, research on the peopling of the Americas has filled in some details, but unanswered questions and competing theories still exist. Back then, the Ice-Free Corridor was the strongest theory. It stated that Asians crossed the land bridge of Beringia inland between two glaciers. One conflicting piece of evidence came from the Chilean site of Monte Verde, which was dated too early for the Ice-Free Corridor theory to work barring a full spring from Alaska to Chile. The date of Monte Verde was just confirmed a few years before the seminar, so researchers were just starting to take the implications of that site seriously. I did not keep up with developments until recently when I started teaching my own introductory course. That was when I started hearing more about the Coastal Migration theory, that people expanded along the coast of Beringia before the inland route was available. I was skeptical at first since I was already settled on the Ice-Free corridor. As I read recent papers, though, I became increasingly convinced. Tracing the coasts was a common theme in modern human expansion. Evidence of this pattern appears in all of the continents. The growing collection of early sites in the Americas weakened the Ice Free Corridor theory but was compatible with Coastal Migration. While there was no absolute direct evidence for expansion along the coast, there was no absolutely contradictory evidence either.

I finally knew what to say to students about the peopling of the Americas. I touched on the transition between models and the accumulating evidence for Coastal Migration. Satisfied that I had done that topic justice, I moved on to other sections in my chapter.

The day before my textbook draft was due, a new article came out stating that both major theories are still viable given the evidence (Potter et al. 2018). (A between-the-lines reading of the article is that it greatly supports the Ice Free Corridor over Coastal Migration). The article was not enough to bring me back to the Ice Free Corridor, though, especially as the earlier of the two options. Still, given this new publication I decided that I should adjust my section since it reminded me that the issue was not settled.

After so many years, I thought archaeology had finally arrived at a single explanation of the peopling of the Americas and I was ready to bring upcoming students the news. Perhaps I was too optimistic. Unlike other introductory science classes, the fundamentals of biological anthropology change rapidly and textbook authors have to work with that. Maybe we still don’t really know anything for certain, but I know more about what to tell students. I show them the current state of research and own summary of it, and let students go from there.

References

Potter, B. A., Baichtal, J. F., Beaudoin, A. B., Fehren-Schmitz, L., Haynes, C. V., Holliday, V. T., . . . Surovell, T. A. (2018). Current evidence allows multiple models for the peopling of the Americas. Sci Adv, 4(8), eaat5473. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat5473