Meeting casts

I’m just back from the physical anthropology meetings. What a lot of interesting things there were – a few in the sessions, and many outside of them!

A few people asked me what I saw or heard that I would be writing up for the blog. I had to explain that a long time ago I decided not to blog about stuff I saw at conferences. It makes life easier in several ways – I don’t have to sit around taking notes, and people don’t have to worry what they tell me.

Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule. Sometimes people have already published their stuff, or they’re hoping to publicize work that won’t be appearing in “embargo” journals. And sometimes there’s stuff that isn’t science, at least not directly, but deserves a record of some kind.

About these meetings, I want to write one thing – these were outstanding for sharing casts of new things with the field at large. Darryl de Ruiter brought casts of many of the Malapa specimens, and made many opportunities to share them with everybody interested. Scott Simpson had brought a cast of his new reconstruction of the pelvis of the Nariokotome skeleton, and was showing it along with his poster about it.

For readers who don’t usually study anatomy, I have to emphasize just how important it is to be able to look at a physical object. Descriptions and photos are, of course, necessary for publication, and they give a formalized account of anatomy. But the sheer size and three-dimensional appearance of a physical object carries tremendous information, not easily conveyed in words. I have worked with bone and fossils for many years, so that handling a cast allows me to place it next to thousands of objects in my tactile mental catalog. I have a much better understanding of those fossils now that I’ve gotten a chance to handle the casts, and that memory will stay with me.

I haven’t seen such an availability of new casts at the meetings since 2001, when Maeve Leakey had casts of Kenyanthropus.

So I want to recognize how open and accessible those objects were at these meetings. These guys are real class acts, and their willingness to share and talk about the new fossils will advance the science. The quality of the reviews for their upcoming research papers will certainly be higher, since many of the potential reviewers will have a much greater familiarity with the fossils. Besides that, the mere opportunity to look at things along with a wide range of experts is really unique. I congratulate them.