Finite element analysis (FEA): Applying an engineering method to functional morphology in anthropology and human biology

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A fundamental research question for morphologists is how morphological variation in the skeleton relates to function. Traditional approaches have advanced our understanding of formfunction relationships considerably but have limitations. Strain gauges can only record strains on a surface, and the geometry of the structure can limit where they can be bonded. Theoretical approaches, such as geometric abstractions, work well on problems with simple geometries and material properties but biological structures typically have neither of these. Finite element analysis (FEA) is a method that overcomes these problems by reducing a complex geometry into a finite number of elements with simple geometries. In addition, FEA allows strain to be modelled across the entire surface of the structure and throughout the internal structure. With advances in the processing power of computers, FEA has become more accessible and as such is becoming an increasingly popular tool to address questions about formfunction relationships in development and evolution, as well as human biology generally. This paper provides an introduction to FEA including a review of the sequence of steps needed for the generation of biologically accurate finite element models that can be used for the testing of biological and functional morphology hypotheses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)609-623
Number of pages15
JournalAnnals of Human Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sep 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Finite element analysis (FEA)
  • Formfunction relationship
  • Functional morphology
  • Human biology

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