Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment
Our research focus is on Pleistocene human evolution with a special focus on Neanderthal paleobiology and modern human origins; functional anatomy, adaptation, and relationship of skeletal morphology to genetics and environment in primates and humans; growth and development in human and non-human primates; and human skeletal analysis.
We approach these research topics from a quantitative perspective, and one of the strengths of our section is the use of state of the art computer assisted imaging and analysis techniques, such as virtual anthropology, high resolution computing tomography, and geometric morphometrics. Our imaging laboratory is one of the best-equipped laboratories in the country.
Research conducted by the Paleoanthropology group aims to elucidate the bio-cultural processes that shaped human evolution, leaving their traces on hominin phenotypic variation.
Through the interdisciplinary study of skeletal remains, we address key questions regarding the phylogenetic history of fossil hominins with special emphasis on the evolution of Pleistocene hominins, modern human origins and dispersals, health and lifestyles of past populations and extinct human species (e.g., physical activity or diet), as well as the interaction between bone morphology and population history. Our methodological approach investigates the evolutionary mechanisms affecting the hominin phenotype by integrating our morphological findings with environmental influences, archaeological, stable isotopic, and genetic research.
Paleoanthropological research relies on the use of extensive reference samples involving the skeletal remains of fossil hominins, non-human primate species, as well as human population groups from a diverse geographic and ecological range. For this purpose, the human osteological collection at the University of Tübingen houses a large collection of casts (representing fossil hominins and non-human primate species) as well as numerous individual human skeletons deriving from archaeological contexts from a wide range of environmental backgrounds and lifestyles.
Our research group relies on the interdisciplinary methodological framework of computer-assisted Virtual Anthropology, which integrates diverse scientific fields, such as biological anthropology, computer science, medical imaging, and advanced statistics (involving the use of geometric morphometric techniques). Virtual Anthropology is based on the use of three-dimensional (3D) digital reconstructions of skeletal morphology. In our two Imaging Laboratories, we develop these 3D models using a wide range of cutting-edge imaging equipment that can provide high-definition scans of the bone’s exterior surface as well as entire bone architecture (both internal and external structures). Bone surfaces are digitized using our two high-resolution structured-light surface scanners (i.e., the Breuckmann Smartscan and the handheld Artec Space Spider; both funded by the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment), while microscopic 3D areas are analyzed using our confocal laser-scanning microscope (SENSOFAR). The 3D reconstruction of internal bone morphology requires the use of micro-computed tomography (micro-CT). This imaging technology is of fundamental value for paleoanthropological research as it can provide complete morphological information on the cortical and trabecular architecture of bone specimens. The derived data can then be analyzed for investigating the effects of environmental pressure, function, and habitual physical activity on hominin bone morphology. Furthermore, this technology allows the application of advanced virtual techniques for the reconstruction of fragmentary fossil remains, which comprises a fundamental step in most aspects of evolutionary research. To address these research objectives, in 2011, our group has established the “High Resolution CT Laboratory” featuring a Phoenix v|tome|x-s micro-CT scanner. This equipment was funded by the University of Tübingen and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG INST 37/706-1).