Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 205–214 | Cite as

Computed tomography in paleoanthropology — an overview



Computed tomography (CT) was first applied in the early 1970s and introduced subsequently a new perspective towards anatomical imaging. In the last decade, high-resolution CT (HR-CT) had a high impact on anthropology and paleoanthropology through its ability to define and explore subtle differences in hard tissue structures in fossil and extant humans and nonhuman primates. CT is very suitable for unique fossil material, because it is destruction free and the original material stays intact while the internal structures are digitized. The imaging yields a virtual copy of the object, which can be used for the generation of detailed copies of original fossil material. CT data allow multiple studies in parallel and independently on specimens which are not commonly accessible. Diverse CT systems with different performance characteristics as designed for different functions can make it difficult for a researcher to choose the most appropriate CT system and to check the image quality of CT scans. The physical principles involved in CT imaging and the principles of signal processing and computer graphics can help to choose the best scan setting and the most suitable CT system for a study. Quantitative and qualitative analysis can also be improved and comparisons between different studies can be facilitated when the above mentioned principles are taken into account. In the following, I will give an overview of the different CT systems and discus both theoretical and practical matters of CT imaging using the example of trabecular bone.


High-resolution CT Trabecular bone Image noise X-ray attenuation CT artifacts 



I thank Joachim Wahl (Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Konstanz) for providing the human bone sample and Gerhard Storch (Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt/Main, Germany) for giving me the chance to scan the howler monkey femur. I am grateful to Holger Roth (GE Sensing & Inspection Technologies) for allowing me to use some of his graphical material and Rico Tilgner for his technical advice. I especially thank Sireen El Zaatari and Tom Rein for their patience in editing the English language. I also thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions. This study was supported by the Ermann Foundation, the Senckenberg Research Institute (Frankfurt/Main, Germany), and by DFG INST 37/706-1 FUGG grant.


  1. Barrie Smith N, Webb A (2011) Introduction to medical imaging – physics, engineering and clinical application. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  2. Baruchel J, Buffiere J-Y, Cloetens P, Di Michiel M, Ferrie E, Ludwig W, Maire E, Salvo L (2006) Advances in synchrotron radiation microtomography. Scr Mater 55:41–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brooks RA, Di Chiro G (1976) Beam hardening in X-ray reconstructive tomography. Phys Med Biol 21:390–398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chhem RK, Brothwell DR (2008) Paleoradiology, imaging mummies and fossils. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  5. Currey JD (2002) Bone: structure and mechanics. Princeton University Press, New JerseyGoogle Scholar
  6. Dalrymple NC, Prasad SR, El-Merhi FM, Chintapalli KN (2007) Price of isotropy in multidetector CT. RadioGraphics 27:49–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Elliott JC, Dover SD (1982) X-ray microtomography. J Microsc 126:211–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fajardo RJ, Müller R (2001) Three-dimensional analysis of nonhuman primate trabecular architecture using micro-computed tomography. Am J Phys Anthropol 115:327–336CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Flohr T, Ohnesorge B (2007) Multi-slice CT technology. In: Ohnesorge B, Flohr T, Becker CR, Knez A, Reiser MF (eds) Multi-slice and dual-source CT in cardiac imaging. Principles – Protocols – Indications – Outlook, 2nd edn. Springer, Berlin, pp 41–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Guldberg RE, Caldwell NJ, Guo XE, Goulet RW, Hollister SJ, Goldstein SA (1997) Mechanical stimulation of tissue repair in the hydraulic bone chamber. J Bone Miner Res 12:1295–1302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hildebrand T, Laib A, Müller R, Dequeker J, Rüegsegger P (1999) Direct three-dimensional morphometric analysis of human cancellous bone: microstructural data from spine, femur, iliac crest, and calcaneus. J Bone Miner Res 14:1167–1174CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kalender WA (2011) Computed tomography, 3rd edn. Fundamentals, system technology, image quality, applications. John Wiley & Sons, WeinheimGoogle Scholar
  13. Kohl G (2005) The evolution and state-of-the-art principles of multislice computed tomography. Proc Am Thorac Soc 2:470–476CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kuhn JL, Goldstein SA, Feldkamp LA, Goulet RW, Jesion G (1990) Evaluation of a microcomputed tomography system to study trabecular bone structure. J Orthop Res 8:833–842CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Larrue A, Rattner A, Zsolt-Andrei P, Olivier C, Laroche N, Vico L, Peyrin F (2011) Synchrotron radiation micro-CT at the micrometer scale for the analysis of the three-dimensional morphology of microcracks in human trabecular bone. PLoS One 6(7):e21297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Levi C, Gray JE, McCullough EC, Hattery RR (1982) The unreliability of CT numbers as absolute values. Am J Roentgenol 139:443–447CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Martill DM (1991) Bones as stones: the contribution of vertebrate remains to the lithologic record. In: Donovan SK (ed) The process of fossilization. Belhaven Press, London, pp 270–292Google Scholar
  18. Nyquist H (1928) Certain topics in telegraph transmission theory. Trans AIEE 47:617–644. Proc IEEE 90:280–305, Reprint as classic paper in: 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Olejniczak AJ, Tafforeau P, Smith TM, Temming H, Hublin JJ (2007) Technical note: compatibility of microtomographic imaging systems for dental measurements. Am J Phys Anthropol 134:130–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Peyrin F, Salomé M, Cloetens P, Laval-Jeantet AM, Ritman E, Rüegsegger P (1998) Micro-CT examinations of trabecular bone samples at different resolutions: 14, 7 and 2 micron level. Technol Health Care 6:391–401Google Scholar
  21. Peyrin F, Muller C, Carillon Y, Nuzzo S, Bonnaisse A, Briguet A (2001) Synchrotron radiation μCT: A reference tool for the characterization of bone samples. In: Majumdar B (ed) Noninvasive assessment of trabecular bone architecture and the competence of bone. Kulwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York, pp 129–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Rack A, Zabler S, Müller BR, Riesemeier H, Weidemann G, Lange A, Goebbels J, Hentschel M, Görner W (2008) High resolution synchrotron-based radiography and tomography using hard X-rays at the BAMline (BESSY II). Nucl Instrum Meth Phys Res A 586:327–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Robling AG, Castillo AB, Turner CH (2006) Biomechanical and molecular regulation of bone remodeling. Annu Rev Biomed Eng 8:455–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Rüegsegger P, Koller B, Müller R (1996) A microtomographic system for the nondestructive evaluation of bone architecture. Calcif Tissue Int 58:24–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ruff C, Leo FP (1986) Use of computed tomography in skeletal structure research. Yearb Phys Anthropol 29:181–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ryan TM, Ketcham RA (2002) Femoral head trabecular bone structure in two omomyid primates. J Hum Evol 42:241–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ryan TM, Shaw CN (2012) Unique suites of trabecular bone features characterize locomotor behavior in human and non-human anthropoid primates. PLoS One 7(7):e41037. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041037 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Ryan TM, Walker A (2010) Trabecular bone structure in the humeral and femoral heads of anthropoid primates. Anat Rec 293:719–729CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Saparin P, Scherf H, Hublin JJ, Fratzl P, Weinkamer R (2011) Structural adaptation of trabecular bone revealed by position resolved analysis of proximal femora of different primates. Anat Rec 294:55–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Scherf H (2008) Locomotion-related femoral trabecular architectures in primates – high resolution computed tomographies and their implications for estimations of locomotor preferences of fossil primates. In: Endo H, Frey R (eds) Anatomical imaging. Springer, Tokyo, pp 39–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Scherf H, Tilgner R (2009) A new high-resolution computed tomography (CT) segmentation method for trabecular bone architectural analysis. Am J Phys Anthropol 140:39–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Scherf H, Beckmann F, Fischer J, Witte J (2004) Internal channel structures in trabecular bone. Optical Science and Technology SPIE's 49th Annual Meeting. Proc SPIE 5535:792–798CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Shannon CE (1949) Communication in the presence of noise. Proc Inst of Radio Eng 37:10–21, Reprint as classic paper in: 1998 Proc IEEE 86:447–457Google Scholar
  34. Shi X, Liu XS, Wang X, Guo E, Niebur GL (2010) Type and orientation of yielded trabeculae during overloading of trabecular bone along orthogonal directions. J Biomech 43:2460–2466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Spoor CF, Zonneveld FW, Macho GA (1993) Linear measurements of cortical bone and dental enamel by computed tomography: application and problems. Am J Phys Anthropol 91:469–484CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sprawls P (1992) CT image detail and noise. RadioGraphics 12:1041–1046Google Scholar
  37. Swennen GRJ, Schutyser F (2006) Three-dimensional cephalometry: spiral multi-slice vs cone-beam computed tomography. Am J Orthodont Dentofac Orthop 130:410–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Tafforeau P, Smith TM (2007) Nondestructive imaging of hominoid dental microstructure using phase contrast X-ray synchrotron microtomography. J Hum Evol 54:272–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Tafforeau P, Boistel R, Boller E, Bravin A, Brunet M, Chaimanee Y, Cloetens P, Feist M, Hoszowska J, Jaeger J-J, Kay RF, Lazzari V, Marivaux L, Nel A, Nemoz C, Thibault X, Vignaud P, Zabler S (2006) Applications of X-ray synchrotron microtomography for non-destructive 3D studies of paleontological specimens. Appl Phys A 83:195–202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Thim J, Reza S, Nawaz K, Norlin B, O'Nils M, Oelmann B (2011) Suitable post processing algorithms for X-ray imaging using oversampled displaced multiple images; 12th International Workshop on Radiation Imaging Detectors, July 11th-15th 2010, IOP Publishing, Bristol, Robinson College, Cambridge UK, pp 1–6Google Scholar
  41. van der Linden JC, Birkenhäger-Frenkel DH, Verhaar JAN, Weinans H (2001) Trabecular bone's mechanical properties are affected by its non-uniform mineral distribution. J Biomech 34:1573–1580CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Zollikofer C, Ponce de Léon M (2005) Virtual reconstruction, a primer in computer-assisted paleontology and biomedicine. John Wiley & Sons, HobokenGoogle Scholar
  43. Zollikofer C, Ponce de Léon M, Martin RD (1998) Computer-assisted paleoanthropology. Evol Anthropol 6:41–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoecology, Paleoanthropology, Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, Eberhard Karls University of TübingenTübingenGermany

Personalised recommendations