Open Eye: There's no business like skull business

Yvonne Cook meeets an OU academic who has just added an unusual new product to his range of replica fossils and other artifacts
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The Independent Online
Skulls talk. Almost everything we know about human evolution and our early ancestors has been pieced together from finds of prehistoric skeletal remains. But these ancient bones are so rare that few people can ever expect to see, let alone to handle, them.

That's one reason Dr Dave Willliams, OU senior lecturer in Earth Sciences, has gone into the skull business. Now on offer from Dave and his OU-based business GEOU are replica skulls, exact in every respect, of early hominids - humans and humanlike beings - from the three million year old apeman Australopithecus, to the comparatively recent Neanderthal man. A snip at around pounds 150 a head.

Ancient skulls tell us much more than just how our ancestors looked or what they ate, says Dave. "If you compare the early and the later speciments you can see that the canine teeth are getting smaller - suggesting that rather than ripping up our meat like a tiger or a wolf, we were able to offer it up to our mouths in small pieces. But the main characteristic is the greater development of the brain, particularly the frontal part. There is more going on above the eyes than below.

"What that larger brain implies is the development of speech; the ability to make and use tools; and social skills, the ability to function as a group. We are much more than physical beings, we are social beings, we have culture, we do a lot by using speech and co-operative behaviour rather than relying on physical strength."

The replica skulls, which are made by a firm in America, are cast in resin from moulds of the originals, and to the amateur eye indistinguishable from the real thing. Even the authentic feel of the original bone is simulated. Dave sees replicas as playing a key role in his tireless quest to make earth sciences more accessible to the general public.

"The original skulls are so rare, and so delicate, that only world-class experts have access to them. But using replicas allows any museum to mount an exhibition, and allows children to handle them."

The skulls are only the latest addition to the range of `merchandise' offered by GEOU, which is, says Dave probably the country's largest manufacturer of replica fossils. It turns out more than 50,000 fossil lookalikes a year - around half for use by students on the OU's Geology and Discovering Science courses. The rest are sold, primarily to museums but also to any other interested party - on one occasion they were used to promote a new rock album.

GEOU holds more than 2,000 moulds taken from original fossils, from which the replicas are cast in plaster in the Earth Sciences department. Also in the GEOU catalogue are miscellaneous items including Stone Age hand-axes, dinosaur claws, jaws and teeth - `particularly popular with museum shops'.

The OU's trading arm, OU Worldwide, acquired the GEOU business in 1995 to safeguard the university's supply of replica fossils, which are sent out to students through the post in study kits, complete with microscope. Despite the range of hi-tech teaching alternatives available, accurate replicas are still an essential part of the earth science experience, insists Dave. "Multimedia is no substitute for handling the real thing."

To contact GEOU email geou@open.ac.uk or ring 01908 654871. Website at http://geou.open.ac.uk/

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