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Virtual anthropology: the digital evolution in anthropological sciences.

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Institute for Anthropology, University of Vienna, Austria.


The discovery and explanation of differences among organisms is a major concern for evolutionary and systematic biologists. In physical anthropology, the discrimination of taxa and the qualitative and quantitative description of ontogenetic or evolutionary change require, of course, the analysis of morphological features. Since the 1960s, a remarkable amount of fossil material was excavated, some of it still awaiting a detailed first analysis, some of it requiring re-examination by more developed methods. While the fossil record grew continuously, a revolution in anthropological research took place with advances in computer technology in the 1980s: a handful of innovative researchers working in specialized anthropology laboratories or medical departments developed the methodological inventory needed to extract critical information from subjects in vivo and from fossilized remains. A considerable part of this information is preserved in the physically heretofore inaccessible interior of anatomical structures. Virtual Anthropology (VA) is a means of making them visible and measurable. Thus, VA also allows access to 'hidden' landmarks; in addition, the large number of semilandmarks accessible on the form enhances the power of Geometric Morphometrics analysis. Furthermore, the density information in volume data allows manipulations such as segmentation, impossible with the real, physical object. Moreover, metric body measurements generally, and cranial measurements specifically, are also an important source of information for the analysis of the ontogenetic development of the skeletal system, and--last but not least--for clinical use (e.g., operation planning, operation simulation, prosthetics). Thus, there developed a fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation between statistics, medicine, and physical anthropology.

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