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Studying Prehistoric Life Histories Through 3D Models


The unerupted teeth from the upper jaw of an archaeological specimen (left corner) are reconstructed from a micro-CT dataset and analysed in Volume Graphics software (main image.)

Spotlight On:

Lesley Harrington
University of Alberta

Teeth are an abundant source of information in learning about prehistoric groups of people. By studying archaeological human skeletons from the early Holocene, University of Alberta Professor Lesley Harrington is working to reconstruct the conditions of pre-industrial life from a biological perspective.

Harrington's research focuses on the relationships and lifeways of hunter-gatherer populations. This research informs the dynamic field of human evolutionary studies by documenting the range of physical variations recorded in the skeletal and dental remains of prehistoric populations. Rarer fossil specimens from earlier phases of human evolution can only be interpreted effectively in this context.

Micro-computed tomography was used to create high-resolution 3D models of the dental anatomy of teeth recovered from Later Stone Age (Khoesan) sites in South Africa. These images allow detailed, non-destructive study of dental morphology and structure. Phylogenetic relationships among human populations are reflected through anatomical features such as dental tissue distribution and cusp morphology. At the microscopic level, individual life histories of growth and stress are recorded in enamel perikymata and lesions.

The raw projections from scans taken in collaboration with DeBeers of remains curated in South Africa are archived using WestGrid's Silo storage facility. These data represent a valuable archive of remains that are at risk of being removed from scientific access.

Ongoing analysis of the data is a collaboration between Canadian, British and South African researchers who share data via the WestGrid and Compute Canada infrastructure. Since joining WestGrid and Compute Canada in May 2012, a poster for presentation at the Canadian Association of Physical Anthropology has been produced. This project on a unique anatomical feature ("Bushman's Canine") is planned for submission for publication to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

A number of other related studies of the dental anatomy of the Khoesan hunter-gatherers of southern Africa are planned, which rely on use of the WestGrid and Compute Canada network.