Logo department of human evolution Welcome at the webpage of the department of human evolution  
Research Focus

Research Focus - Virtual Paleoanthropology

virtual paleoanthropologyThe 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 and especially of the RX Computed Tomography, and industrial techniques of imaging (microtomography and laser sanner) has allowed the production of 3D images of fossil specimens. These virtual representations have opened a number of new possibilities for the analysis of the specimens and among the main ones:

  • Virtual extraction and reconstruction (correction of plastic distortions)
  • Precise quantitative analysis of inaccessible internal structure (including structures of small size such as middle and inner ears, bony tables, vascular foramina, etc…) and their comparison with living references.
  • 3D morphometric analysis with the development of new mathematic tools
  • Modelling of the ontogenic process, biomechanical properties and of evolutionary changes themselves.


In the near future, the anatomy of the fossil hominins that usually represent rare and precious museum items, will no longer be studied on the specimens themselves but on virtual representation. Gathering these numerical data, building virtual collections and being top notch in their analysis is one main axis of activity of the paleoanthropology group. It implies a strong network of collaboration with other institutions at the international level. Providing top-level technical facilities in Leipzig indeed attract the collaboration of museums and research teams that, so far, at the European level, have only relied on medical institutions to perform computer tomography analyses.

Among other advantages, these techniques of imaging give access to the comparative exploration of anatomical structures in living humans and hopefully soon in living Primates. Comparisons with the fossil data with respect to such issues as growth and development, skeletal and dental maturation, evolution of the brain and its blood supply become possible.


skull This 3D volume rendering is made from micro-CT scans of a Neandertal molar tooth from Abri Suard, France.  The micro-CT scans record details as small as 45 microns (1 micron = 1/1000 mm), preserving the fine structure at the surface of the tooth, as well as its internal structures.  The Dental Tissues Group in the Department of Human Evolution uses CT scans such as these to measure the thickness, shape, and volume of dental tissues.  These studies illuminate morphological differences between fossil specimens and modern humans; such studies also help to understand the development, diet, and health of fossil hominin species.

--> Watch the movie! - tooth-movie.mpg (2 MB)


Facilities --> Scanning Equipment [more]

Facilities --> Virtual Reality Laboratory [more]

Virtual Dental Tissue Imaging [pdf]