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Move over Gollum! Motion capture's now being used for bioarchaeology

Contributed by
May 31, 2018

Great news, folks! It turns out Jar Jar Binks actually has a good use in our society after all.

Well, if bioarchaeology research is good. Hold on…

Yep, according to Wikipedia, we’re dealing with ”the scientific study of human remains from archaeological sites,” and there’s much to glean from such study. 

But what does Jar Jar have to do with bioarchaeology? The same thing that Gollum has to do with it: motion capture. It turns out the technology that continues to bring our favorite fictional creatures to life in ever more impressive fashion is also quite handy at recreating the real world, or at least what we imagine life was actually like in different eras. Like say, parts of what is now Bolivia, Peru, and Chile around 500 A.D., about a thousand years before the Incan Empire took root.

According to University of California Riverside’s UCR Today, motion-capture technology — all those little ping-pong balls hooked up to cameras documenting precise motions — allows bioarchaeologist Sara Becker to look far more closely at the past. The assistant professor of anthropology at the university utilizes the very technology that Peter Jackson used so well with Gollum and George Lucas used so poorly with Jar Jar to simulate ancient labor practices of pre-Columbian civilizations.

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Strike meesa down with all of your hatred.

Becker studies human bones — skeletal remains from prehistoric civilizations — for evidence that can speak to how those humans performed labor, while searching for clues like how muscle attached to bone, and patterns of osteoarthritis. But since there’s no written language from the time, we don’t have a very keen understanding of the prehistory of the Andean peoples, like the Tiwanaku. 

In order to study the Tiwanaku's past, Becker will use OptiTrack motion capture equipment to look at their likely descendants' present. The Andean Aymara people are considered “traditional laborers,” according to Becker. “They still make pottery and stone tools, weave, farm, grind corn, herd llamas, and do a range of other tasks that require a significant amount of labor.”

So Becker hopes that capturing their movements, particularly their physical mechanics that are similar to those of laboring people performing similar tasks in the area some 1,500 years ago, will tell us more about those prehistoric people. The primary goal is to use those simulations to see how such labor could have resulted in long-term osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal stress.

While any Andy Serkis movie might seem like the likely inspiration for the study, Becker was apparently more into the Wachowskis. “I’m of the age when The Matrix came out, and I had never seen anything like it,” she said. “I had thought about doing a project like this since the 1990s, but it wasn’t until I talked to a lot of my close friends who are video gamers and work in the video-game industry that we confirmed it could even be possible. It also helps that the prices of motion-capture technology have come down so much over the years that we’re able to finally make this more of a reality.”

Well, a simulation of reality, but presumably a far more accurate one than Jar Jar.


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