Lucy and a Neanderthal in My Room: Augmented Reality and Archaeology


Although this appears to have been a feature on the Natural History Museum‘s website for quite some time now, I only recently came across it and I was so impressed by the technology I had to blog about it!

In the Human Evolution section of the website one can find out about how modern humans evolved or how long we’ve been around for. Within it there is a sub-section on Meet our Early Human Family and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Besides providing engaging and detailed descriptions of the different hominids (e.g. Homo floresiensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Australopithecus africanus), ‘Meet our Early Human Family’ also gives visitors the chance to actually meet their early human ancestors through augmented reality (AR)!

What does ‘augmented reality’ do?

AR places a computer-generated image on top of a real-world image. In this case, the Natural History Museum has produced images of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) and a Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) which you can choose to project wherever you want.

NHM AR Marker
Augmented Reality (AR) Marker Used to Project Lucy and Neanderthal

 In order to produce the augmented reality images of Lucy and the Neanderthal only two pieces of equipment are necessary: a printer and a computer with a webcam. First you will need to print the marker like the one shown here. If you, like me, are always running out of black ink, don’t worry – it too works if you print it in another colour (I used Paint to ‘throw a bucket’ of dark blue over the black parts!).

Once it’s printed just switch your webcam on, place the marker so it’s showing on your screen and press ‘Start’ on Lucy’s or the Neanderthal’s augmented reality pages. In my case, I decided to project Lucy and the Neanderthal onto my desk at home*. They didn’t look very happy to be there and just kept walking round in circles!

Lucy Augmented Reality
Lucy finds my relatively hairless arm rather puzzling…

A bit about Lucy

Lucy is an Australopithecus afarensis and is one of our ancestors who lived in east Africa (Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya) some time between 3.8 and 3.0 million years ago. From hers and other Australopithecus afarensis fossil finds we know that this species walked bipedally -although it was not the first to do so-, and it was highly sexually dimorphic (i.e. males were much bigger than females). No tools have so far been recovered in association with this species.

Neanderthal Augmented Reality
Observing the Neanderthal – he was not thrilled by my presence

A bit about Neanderthals

Homo neanderthalensis lived in Europe and Asia between around 200,000 and 28,000 years ago. They are our closest extant relatives. From the numerous specimens recovered for this species we know they were stocky people and had larger brains than we do. This is generally assumed to be linked to their presence in cold climates although it is worth noting that they would have also lived through periods of global warming. They produced a sophisticated lithic  technology known as the Mousterian as well as ornamental and what are thought to be symbolic objects.

(Sources: Natural History Museum & Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

*I didn’t actually have Lucy and the Neanderthal standing on my desk, but rather it looked like it from the video showing on my screen. I wish I could have tiny hominids walking around my room!

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