The field of Human Paleontology and Physical Anthropology has been revolutionized by the development of what is more and more commonly called “virtual paleoanthropology.” The growing use of medical imaging, especially RX Computed Tomography, and of industrial techniques of imaging (microtomography and laser sanner) has allowed the production of 3D images of fossil specimens. These virtual representations are opening a number of new possibilities for the analysis of specimens. Among these are:
- Hominin systematics and phylogenetics
- Precise quantitative analysis of inaccessible internal structures (including small structures such as the middle and inner ears, bony tables, vascular foramina, etc.) and comparison of these structures with living references.
- Hominin growth, development, and life histories
- Models for patterns of morphological variation in extant humans and non-human primates
Geometric morphometrics is a collection of methods that deal directly with the coordinates of anatomical landmarks, either in two or three dimensions, rather than with traditional distance or angle measurements. These coordinate data are processed using Procrustes Superimposition, which translates, rotates and scales to unit size the specimen landmark configurations. Thus, size is separated from shape, enabling the separate analysis of these two components of morphology, as well as the analysis of their relationship.
Like traditional morphometrics, geometric morphometric methods allow statistical inference, but importantly, they present several advantages. They allow the geometry of the objects studied to be better retained. They often enable the quantification of features that are difficult to measure with traditional measurements, and are therefore usually described qualitatively. Finally, they allow morphological differences to be visualized in specimen space using interactive computer graphics. This ability to visualize morphological differences is invaluable, particularly when dealing with complex 3-D anatomical structures.
In addition to applying existing geometric morphometric methods to questions in human evolutionary studies, we are also working on the further development of geometric morphometric methods adapted for use with semi-landmarks (outlines, surfaces), articulated structures, and quantitative genetics.