Provost Fellow Travels to Confocal Lab in Arkansas for Research

Provost Fellow Travels to Confocal Lab in Arkansas for Research

This past spring, Alex Peterson won a Provost Fellowship to support her research project examining the dental remains of the hominin "Meganthropus."  With the mentorship of Dr. Kristin Krueger (Anthropology), Alex is learning and using techniques in dental anthropology to determine to what taxonomic classification the Meganthropus dental specimens belong and to reconstruct their behavior through dental microwear texture analysis.  Here, Alex describes their recent research trip to Arkansas, where she used advanced equipment to study the remains.

I found nine envelopes labeled “Meganthropus,” a hominin from Java now considered Homo erectus, buried in the depths of a multitude of dental casts from Dr. Kristin Krueger’s anthropology lab.  Little did I know that my discovery would set off a research journey to the University of Arkansas’ confocal lab. 

At the University of Arkansas, the anthropology department is in Old Main, the oldest building on campus; however, we were nestled in its basement, using the newest technology in dental microwear analysis. “Connie,” a specialized white-light confocal profiler, magnifies enamel surfaces so the features, such as scratches, are seen. 

We used Connie to take 3D images of the surface and run them through specialized software packages, providing data such as feature volume or heterogeneity.  The Meganthropus casts I had are older, so many of them looked like Swiss cheese under the confocal and were completely unusable.  However, three casts yielded beautiful microwear images.  To find microwear data at all on a set of mystery casts is very exciting since many fossil samples do not preserve these data.  The next step in the project is examining the data and comparing them to known values for other hominins to determine the types of non-dietary activities in which Meganthropus was engaged.

This 3D rendering of the surface of one of the Meganthropus teeth shows the depth of scratches and pits in the enamel the same way that topographic maps show elevation.