The shape of human evolution: a geometric morphometrics perspective

Evol Anthropol. Jul-Aug 2012;21(4):151-65. doi: 10.1002/evan.21320.


Study of morphological form is fundamental to the discipline of paleoanthropology. The size and shape of our ancestors' anatomical features have long been the focus of research on hominin systematics, phylogeny, functional morphology, ontogeny, variation, and evolutionary change. Early physical anthropologists relied on both qualitative descriptions of anatomical shape and linear measurements to assess variation among hominins. The seminal works of W. W. Howells and C. E. Oxnard helped to bring multivariate techniques to the forefront of physical anthropology. Howells' intention was the objective delineation of components of shape, which could then fuel further analyses and interpretations, as well as clarification of the ways that growth influences interindividual and interpopulational differences in shape. He expressed concern that previous comparisons of individual measurements did not capture the overall shape of the skull, which is "expressed by the relations between measurements." Similarly, Oxnard recognized that a multivariate approach to the study of complex shapes allows "for such perturbations (e.g., variation and covariation)…that are difficult to evaluate by eye and impossible to reveal by measurement and simple analysis alone." While multivariate methods offered clear advantages over univariate or bivariate representations of shape, the analysis of traditional morphometric measures such as linear distances, angles, and ratios, has limitations when it comes to quantifying the complex geometry of some anatomical structures.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Weights and Measures
  • Cephalometry / methods*
  • Humans
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Paleontology / methods*
  • Phylogeny
  • Skull / anatomy & histology