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A Digital Fossil Finder for a New Crowdsourced Age of Archaeology

View of the Lake Turkana area (photo by Filiberto Strazzari/Flickr)
View of the Lake Turkana area in Kenya (photo by Filiberto Strazzari/Flickr)

High-resolution aerial images captured by kites and drones could reveal hidden fossils in northern Kenya’s Turkana Basin, where the high temperatures and uneven terrain makes on-the-ground archaeology difficult. FossilFinder is a citizen science project introduced by the University of Bradford and the Turkana Basin Institute at the recent British Science Festival.

Skull cast of Homo rudolfensis, discovered in Kenya's East Turkana (photo by Peter O'Connor/Flickr)
Skull cast of Homo rudolfensis, discovered in Kenya’s East Turkana (photo by Peter O’Connor/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

The announcement in September of the discovery of the previously unknown Homo naledi in a well-known South African cave demonstrates that there’s still much to unearth about humans’ archaeological past. That’s what makes FossilFinder so intriguing. The Lake Turkana area is rich with fossils that are regularly revealed by sporadic heavy rains and erosion. There have been several major discoveries in early human history there, including in 1972 Homo habilis, from 1.9 million years ago; in 1984 the incredibly intact 1.5-million-year-old Homo erectus known as the “Turkana Boy”; and in 1995 Australopithecus anamensis, which pushed the emergence of bipedalism back half a million years. In other words, humans have been there for centuries, and the evidence of their long existence is scattered among the rocks.

Screenshot from FossilFinder
Screenshot from FossilFinder
Screenshot from FossilFinder
Screenshot from FossilFinder

As the FossilFinder tagline states, its mission is to get “more eyes, more information, more discoveries” on the Turkana Basin. The interactive site takes users through a series of steps, first assessing the quality of the image, then the density of the surface rubble, the types of rocks (with helpful images for identification), and finally anything of interest, whether it be bone, shell, a stone tool, or “maybe something.” According to a post by Scott Bjelland on the Turkana Basin Institute site, the findings will be “used in the paleoenvironmental reconstruction of these landscapes.” The data will also help narrow down research areas for archaeologists in the field. Each image is seen by 10 different people to take human error into account, the BBC reported.

There is an increasing number of crowdsourcing projects to mine data that overworked scientists and understaffed institutes don’t have the resources to manage. MicroPasts, created by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology, has archives of archaeological objects for transcribing and images to trace for 3D imaging, while the University of Oxford’s Ancient Lives features thousands of papyrus fragments in need of translation. There’s also the Purposeful Gaming project, which involves transcribing texts in the Biodiversity Heritage Library through digital games in which you grow a virtual beanstalk or play a fictional sport. For any of these projects to succeed, they need a dedicated audience. This August, MicroPasts marked an accomplishment when some of its crowdsourced work was incorporated into a virtual reality re-creation of a Bronze Age home.

Google Earth finds like the 2005 locating of a Roman villa or the 2010 spotting of the world’s most intact crater demonstrate the archaeological potential of getting more eyes on high-quality aerial imagery. These kinds of digital experiences may be somewhat dissociated from the original scientific research on their sites, yet they do have the potential to encourage more participation, as well as greater recognition of the grunt work that goes into archaeological discoveries.

Screenshot from FossilFinder
Screenshot from FossilFinder

Search for fossils on FossilFinder.com.

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