Applying Google Earth in paleontological and archaeological research

(GIS) are a critical aspect of modern day archaeological and paleoanthropological research. GIS systems expedite analyzing and managing large amounts of spatial data, and can really improve mapping locations where artifacts or fossils are found. Unfortunately, the price point and learning curve involved in using GIS applications, like ArchGIS make it an unapproachable technology.

An article in advance in the Journal of Human Evolution introduces how the most basic version of Google Earth can be easily used in lieu of other GIS software to display and share paleontological data. This is definitely not the first time we’ve seen news on how Google Earth has aided anthropological research, but it is one of the first times I’ve seen it be embraced in an academic, peer reviewed journal. So if you’re interested in how Google Earth can help you with managing your data, without having to invest a lot of time, effort, and money in complex GIS software, check this paper out: “Google Earth, GIS, and the Great Divide: A new and simple method for sharing paleontological data.”

The authors of the paper walk people thru how Google Earth can be used to map localities. They also ramp up the intensity, and introduce how Google Earth maps can have other maps overlaid, and how the KML files can be shared amongst people. Ultimately, they make the claim that Google Earth is the tool to disseminate paleontological information but they miss talking about some critical points.

First, Google Earth works best when connected to the internet. Unless you’ve downloaded all their maps to your computer and stored it in cache, you’re out of luck in using it in the field with no internet connection. That kills its utility for many field researchers. Also, the free version of Google Earth comes with lower resolution imagery that may not be good enough for many researchers. That’s why it hasn’t been fully adopted by the anthropological community… The gold standard seems to buy high resolution satellite or aerial imagery and map it using a higher end GIS software package.

Lastly comes concerns on how Google deals with your data. Google is known for being wanting to be the hub of entire internet, some people are cool with that. Some people aren’t. Paleontological and archaeological data is often sensitive data for a multitude of reasons and using Google’s product may not match well with how public you want your data.

16 thoughts on “Applying Google Earth in paleontological and archaeological research

  1. I’m not an expert at all, just an interested reader of this fantastic blog. I just want to point out there might be an interesting alternative to google earth. World Wind from Nasa is open source, and has recently changed from .net to java, making it possible to run on any platform (Windows, Linux, Mac, …).
    The most important thing is that it’s open source, which means you can modify it to your needs.

  2. Wow Bart, thanks for the kind words and suggesting World Wind. I remember hearing that NASA was releasing a similar thing to Google Earth but I didn’t bother to check it.

    To hear from you that it is open source and built with a cross platform language make it really really appealing… especially for those who don’t wanna lock their data into Google.

    This looks really interesting. Thanks so much for sharing with us Bart, much appreciated.


    P.S. World Wind can be found here:

  3. Hi Bullsworld, thanks for the links. I appreciate what you shared, especially the Paleomaps, I’m sure a lot of paleoanthropologists will find great utility in having a paleological maps.

    In regards to the monitoring, I think that’s one of the main strengths of WorldWind. I use Google all the time, and have them host a lot of sensitive information — i.e. my email. But, paleontological data and archaeological is something many are weary about having Google ‘know’ about.


  4. Thanks for the great article. I wanted to address a few misconceptions:

    First, both the free and paid versions of Google Earth display the same imagery from the same “Primary” database, so the resolution is identical. There are, of course, areas of the world that only have low resolution imagery available, but it’s the same across all versions, and is often updated as new imagery becomes available. The difference with paid versions is the “performance” (rendering or download speed?), and additional functionality such as the ability to import spreadsheets and GIS data directly into the Pro version. See here for more info:

    One of the comments alluded to “locking their data into Google”. Well, the KML format used to display content in Google Earth recently became an international (OGC) standard, and is supported by most geographic software, including World Wind and many ArcGIS products. See:

    Also, creating and displaying your information with Google Earth does not make it available to anyone else. Google Earth is just a platform to display (a) the background data from Google (imagery, terrain, etc.), (b) any KML formatted content you decide to download from the web, and (c) your own content from your hard drive. The only way your information will be made available to Google or anyone else is if you post it on a website or share it through the Google Earth bulletin board, where others can download and view it. But so long as you only share the file with those you trust, it’s just like any other data file on your hard drive, making Google Earth useful for internal data visualization, as well as sharing data publicly.

    World Wind is a great open-source product if you want to re-program or customize it yourself, and its ability to do more things with traditional GIS data makes it better for some uses. But the base imagery available through World Wind is not as good for most locations, and it doesn’t have the huge public user base or rich 3D environment that Google Earth has. Sure, Google Earth has limitations, and is not much good for data analysis, but be careful what you believe before checking the facts.

  5. Hi Chris,

    You are very right, KML file format is not a complete lockdown. KML files can be parsed by many different applications like NASA WorldWind, ESRI ArcGIS Explorer, Adobe PhotoShop, AutoCAD, and Yahoo! Pipes. About two weeks ago KML was recently agreed to the the open file format for map points.

    What I meant in my comment when I said locking down into Google Earth, is that to get maximum GIS functionality you must buy Google Earth Pro. That is is around $400. For many that is an investment comparable to ArchGIS, a much more robust application for anthropological applications. True with the upgraded Pro subscription, you get additional measurement tools to do spatial analysis done in other GIS packages, but you’re ultimately dishing out a lot of dough. Using an open source alternative is a way to get around being obligated to use a proprietary application with copyrighted imagery.

    I’m not too confident with your claims about Google not the data you input available to anyone else. Google is in the business of figuring out how people use their technology, what they store with them, and parsing that information into delivering customized ads. Who’s to say Google is not tracking the points and markers you input into Google Earth to fuel this business model of theirs? For many paleontologists that is a risk they may not wanna take.

    One last thing, the basic version of Google Earth lacks the performance boost in the Pro version. GIS data cannot be imported. And, print resolution is throttled down. For people in the field who use physical maps and imagery that’s killer.


  6. A little-known fact is that Google actually gives away free GE Pro licenses to educational users – some details here: . Google reps. were taking sign-ups for free GE Pro licenses at their booth at the AAG meeting in Boston a few weeks back — I signed up and am awaiting my license….

  7. Kambiz,
    True, at $400 Earth Pro is expensive for many, especially budget strapped academics, but ArcGIS is $1200 and up… way up. Then again, that’s not really a good comparison since they are designed to be quite different beasts, and user needs determine which is best. Google Earth mainly is a visualization platform (i.e. a web page for geo-data), and while it can do basic data creation, it is certainly not built for data processing. Like the post above says… Earth is a “tool to *disseminate*” data. ArcGIS, on the other hand, is a data creation, management and analysis package that can do much more processing, but isn’t as good at visualization (for non-gis users). For users who need to do any sort of data processing, analysis, or complex symbolization, ArcGIS or other GIS packages are definitely the way to go (there are some good open-source GIS packages out there too!). ArcGIS has KML export tools built in, and rumors of more KML support in the upcoming 9.3 version. So if you have complex data needs, by all means, process it in ArcGIS (and then let people view/explore it on Earth’s rich background data). And if you need high res printing, or super fast rendering, (useful for making movies), then you’ll have to pay for Earth Pro… not everything is free. Though as Derick mentioned, it IS free to educators:
    and to non-profit users:
    (Select the countries currently supported in the language box – upper-right)

    As for Google collecting the KML data that you create or display on your own machine… please don’t spread rumors for which there is no evidence. Sure, Google’s servers know what searches come from your IP address because you send them your query in order for them to provide you the service of search results. They might know where Earth users are looking by which imagery tiles get requested more than others, but streaming data back from your hard drive is quite impractical. You would see it as large amounts of outgoing network traffic. It’s not hard to log the network traffic on your own machine, and someone would have discovered it if this is what they did. Their business depends on users trusting them, so that they come back to use the search engine and other services instead of simply clicking to another site. They have every incentive in the world to maintain that trust. Do you worry that Microsoft uploads all of your Word and Excel documents to its servers? Those programs are also connected to the internet to look for updates, bring in images or data you insert from the web, etc… but you don’t worry about Microsoft stealing your data, do you? It’s the same thing with Earth: what’s on your hard drive stays on your hard drive. If you’re still afraid of it, you don’t have to use it, but it’s a disservice to spread fear without evidence… especially about a product that is providing a valuable service to the geo-community. It might not be exactly what everyone needs, but it sure has made geo visualization a lot more interesting for a lot of people.

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