Geometric morphometrics and finite elements analysis: Assessing the functional implications of differences in craniofacial form in the hominin fossil record

Publication date: Available online 21 September 2017

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science

Author(s): Paul O’Higgins, Laura C. Fitton, Ricardo Miguel Godinho


The study of morphological variation in the hominin fossil record has been transformed in recent years by the advent of high resolution 3D imaging combined with improved geometric morphometric (GM) toolkits. In parallel, increasing numbers of studies have applied finite elements analysis (FEA) to the study of skeletal mechanics in fossil and extant hominoid material. While FEA studies of fossils are becoming ever more popular they are constrained by the difficulties of reconstruction and by the uncertainty that inevitably attaches to the estimation of forces and material properties. Adding to these modelling difficulties it is still unclear how FEA analyses should best deal with species variation.

Comparative studies of skeletal form and function can be further advanced by applying tools from the GM toolkit to the inputs and outputs of FEA studies. First they facilitate virtual reconstruction of damaged material and can be used to rapidly create 3D models of skeletal structures. Second, GM methods allow variation to be accounted for in FEA by warping models to represent mean and extreme forms of interest. Third, GM methods can be applied to compare FEA outputs – the ways in which skeletal elements deform when loaded. Model comparisons are hampered by differences in material properties, forces and size among models but how deformations from FEA are impacted by these parameters is increasingly well understood, allowing them to be taken into account in comparing FEA outputs.

In this paper we review recent advances in the application of GM in relation to FEA studies of craniofacial form in hominins, providing examples from our recent work and a critical appraisal of the state of the art.