Looking closely (very closely)

 

NSF grant brings texture microscope, and exotic specimens, to campus


Photo courtesy of Anthropology.com

What do these things have in common?

Chile’s Chinchorro mummies—the oldest in the world at 7,000 years;

9,000-year-old human skeletons from an ancient cemetery in Niger;

Neanderthal remains from Croatia, considered among the world’s finest.

The answer? Specimens from all three archeological sites are coming to the University of Indianapolis, where Associate Professor Christopher Schmidt landed a $214,500 grant from the National Science Foundation to obtain
a white light confocal imaging profiler.

Known more casually as a texture microscope, the high-tech system uses tiny beams of light to scan a surface and create an extremely detailed three-dimensional digital image.

Though the devices are more common in industrial applications, scientists have begun using them to study prehistoric teeth, opening a window into the eating habits and lifestyles of our ancestors.

UIndy is only the second site in the nation to maintain such a system for anthropological use, which is making Schmidt a popular guy.

“I’ve made some great contacts around the globe,” says Schmidt, director of the University’s Indiana Prehistory Laboratory.

The texture microscope is an improvement over the previous instrument of choice, the scanning electron microscope, because it speeds up, automates, and eliminates human error from the process of collecting data on the tiny abrasion patterns found on teeth.

Such dental analysis can reveal a surprising amount of information about nutrition, illness, and even social organization—knowledge of our past that is relevant to our present and future.

Obtaining the device for UIndy, and using it to collaborate with researchers around the world, is a big step toward anthropologists’ long-term goal of compiling a global dental analysis database.

“It’s going to help us refine our understanding of the people who came before us,” Schmidt says.