Exploring with Google Earth

On Thursday, February 10, in an act of friendship and cooperation on behalf of South Africa, paleo-anthropologist Lee Berger donated casts of recently uncovered Australopithecus sediba fossils to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Despite having explored the area hundreds of times, Berger only discovered the remains of this new early human ancestor in the Cradle of Humanity World Heritage Site in 2008 with the help of Google Earth.

Google Earth, first released in 2005, is virtual globe and geographic information program that can be downloaded or bought in a more advanced, professional package. Playing around with the free version, Dr. Berger saw that his original coordinates, taken by early global positioning technology, were off by up to 200 meters. Re-adjusting the locations of caves and dig sites, Berger was able to find hundreds of new caves in an area that has been extensively excavated since 1935 and, as a result, remarkably complete fossils of a new species of human ancestor.

This speaks volumes on the power of technology now freely available on the internet. On previous expeditions, Berger had used a $400,000 global positioning system to mark sites and would examine satellite images that cost $10,000 a picture to search for new caves, all made obsolete by a program openly distributed to the public. Paleontology is not the only exotic field that has unexpectedly been revolutionized by the mapping software. It has also been adopted by security and shipping corporations to track piracy with the help of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which publishes anti-shipping activity reports in a format compatible with Google Earth.

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