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The ability to objectively compare shapes of skeletal remains, such as skulls and teeth, or artefacts, such as stone tools, is central to many questions in archeology and palaeoanthropology. Over the last decade, geometric morphometric (GMM) techniques have revolutionised the statistical analysis of shape and form. Statistical shape-analysis can be a helpful tool for answering many archeological questions. One might, for example, be interested in the population dynamics associated with changes in material culture. Studying the human skeletal remains from different archeological stratas using geometric morphometrics can provide insights into the population history. Based on artefacts alone it is often impossible to determine whether a cultural change was linked to the replacement of a local population, or whether this new set of behaviors and skills developed locally.
Virtual anthropology (VA) is a multidisciplinary approach to studying anatomical data in three spatial dimensions, or in space through time, particularly for humans, their ancestors and their closest relatives (www.virtual-anthropology.com). The quantitative analysis of biological structures in varying detail is a key element, as is the availability of digital data. This fusion of anthropology, mathematics, physics, computer science, medicine and industrial design incorporates know-how for applications spanning evolutionary biology, hominoid development and growth, forensics, biometric identification, medical diagnosis and teaching (Figure 16.1). In this chapter, we demonstrate the VA toolkit by reviewing some recent results based on high-resolution CT data from South African fossil hominids. We show examples of electronic preparation (MLD 37/38) and anatomical and geometric reconstruction (Taung, Sts 71, StW 505, SK 48, MLD 37/38), and we explain the outcomes or findings regarding endocranial measurements, venous drainage systems, sexual dimorphism in A. africanus, growth trajectories of hominoids, and the allometric scaling of robust australopithecines. Digital specimens, available independent of time or location, allow us to capture novel and more reproducible data of traits and form, as from inaccessible or hitherto unformalised regions. Delicate specimens can be protected from damage when digital fossils are used to make casts, to share data among scientists and to underlie alternative measurement schemes. We argue that these themes represent one substantial area of development for contemporary fossil-based palaeoanthropology.