History of the Foundation

View grantees in the Image Library

Anthro-Cast

Image from AnthroCast Catalogue
Image from the Wenner-Gren Foundation Casting Program Catologue

The Foundation's early interest in developing more sophisticated tech­nical aids (Laboratory and Loan Equipment Program, 1948-1952) led to the exploration of new technologies for the safe and more accurate replication of fossils and associated artifacts.

An ambitious seventeen-year program started in 1959 with a sizable grant to the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, under whose aegis the late chemist David Gilbert could experiment with plastics in the development of methods to reproduce high-quality casts of fossil materials with minimum risk to the original specimens. (An earlier grant to the Uni­versity Museum had purchased the Barlow collection of plaster molds on which the museum's hand-produced plaster casts were based.) Gilbert's research eventually moved to the Foundation's laboratory. For the next seven years, the Foundation fostered the project's evolution from a manual operation to a factory-controlled, batch-production manufacturing process.

The technical process was perfected by 1962, the year in which the Foundation began to make molds from original specimens. Political, academic and personal blocks to accessing original finds were overcome through the generous cooperation of the late L. S. B. Leakey in East Africa. Dr. John Robinson also cleared the way for inclusion of the South African ma­terial in the collection of new molds. Under their supervision, hundreds of molds were pro­duced by three mold makers over several weeks of intensive work in Africa.

With the technical skill and the first molds in hand, the Foundation launched a formal pro­gram to produce cast replicas and to expand the repertory of its available inventory. But these activities were a manifestation of only part of the more sweeping objectives underlying this program. Those goals were to help preserve original materials, to stimulate research and teaching in the field of human evolution, to encourage scientific communication within a scholarly community through a wider and more open and equitable exchange of materials and information and, more immediately, to encourage standardization in the rendering and utili­zation of fossil data. This last objective linked problems of the production process directly to problems of scientific interpretation and to questions about the nature and quality of objective evidence.

With the aid and advice of scholars such as Dr. F. Clark Howell, who acted as curator of the program, the casting standardization criteria emerged as a blend between the requirements of researchers and teachers and the need for quality-control procedures in mold-making which could be followed throughout the entire manufacturing process. The Foundation established its own facility -- Anthro-Cast Production Center -- in 1965. It served both as a research and development facility and as a production plant. After a few false starts in which training, equipment and logistic problems were solved, Anthro-Cast became fully functional in 1968.

A continuing, systematic effort was made to gain access to cranial and postcranial materials from the Miocene up to and including contemporary primates. Final priorities for selecting specimens to cast were determined by the availability and general condition of the original specimens. Each item in the collection was supplemented by systematic, uniform documentation. Some of this information was published in the Foundation's Catalogue of Fossil Hominids.

During the seventeen years in which this ambitious program was developed and executed, much controversy surrounded the uses and abuses of casts, their value as teaching aids and the caution with which they should be used for study as “substitutes” for the original material. Discussion of these problems had far-reaching impact upon the use and interpretation of original specimens themselves, in reconstructing theories and facts about human origins.

Casting ranks as one of the Foundation's most influential and innovative programs. It enabled the Foundation to affect scientists and students from many disciplines allover the world who might have been unfamiliar with its other programs.

By 1976, over 16,000 replicas of 180 cast items and accompanying descriptive brochures were made available to the anthropological profession worldwide. The Foundation's Board of Trustees concluded in that year that it would be imprudent to continue absorbing developmental, training and acquisition costs at the expense of its other programs and activities. The Board reluctantly decided, therefore, to terminate the Casting Program and close its production facilities. With the cessation of the program, the inventory of remaining casts was donated to some 120 universities and museums throughout the world, most of which could not have afforded to purchase them. The production facilities were dismantled, and salvageable equipment was donated to other cast-making operations: the National Museum of Kenya, the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution.

No distributable casts or brochures remain with the Foundation. The inventory of Anthro-Cast molds -- each with its control cast -- is now housed at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania under an agreement with the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which remains sole owner of the materials.