Pilbrow laboratory: Physical (biological) anthropology

Research Overview

How humans evolved is a question that fascinates lay people and scientists alike. The question is often steeped in controversy, in large part because fossil remains for humans are rare and consist primarily of craniodental elements that fossilize well. A major question then is: how much reliance can be placed on observations from such scant evidence for reconstructing the evolutionary relationships among our fossil ancestors?

Research in our laboratory focuses on determining the importance of hard-tissue anatomy for studying human evolution. In particular, we study the evidence for gene flow, genetic admixture and evolutionary diversification through dental and skeletal morphology.

Research is conducted in the lab but also involves travel to museums around the world, and participation in palaeoanthropological and archaeological fieldwork in Africa, Europe and Asia.


  • photo of Tina Luke
    Peter Mayall

    Peter Mayall graduated MBBS at the University of Melbourne in 1968 and then completed post-graduate study in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the UK and Hong Kong before returning to Australia to practise until retiring in November 2013. He completed a MA in Archaeology and Physical Anthropology at the University of Melbourne in 2012 and is now researching intentional cranial modification in Europe during the migration period as a PhD thesis.

  • photo of Angela Hind
    Marine Chkadua

    Maka graduated from the Georgian National Medical Institute in Tbilisi in 2005, and is currently undertaking a PhD in physical anthropology. Her research will examine skeletal markers of health and disease in osteological collections at the Georgian National Musuem, dating to between the late Bronze Age and the Early Middle Ages. This project will assess the overall health of these ancient populations, as well as inspect the incidence of specific diseases such as infectious diseases and physical trauma.

  • photo of Catherine Li
    Natalie Langowski

    Natalie completed a master’s degree at the University of Melbourne in 2014, and is now continuing her research as a Ph.D. student. Her current research will use carbon, nitrogen and strontium stable isotopes to study the subsistence strategies and mobility of human populations residing in the region of Mtskheta, Georgia, between 1500 BC and AD 600. Natalie aims to examine the impact of major cultural changes on dietary practices, and the role of migrants in disseminating foreign cultures in Mtskheta during this period.

  • photo of Daniel Blashki
    Luka Papac

    Recent advances in the extraction and sequencing of DNA from archaeological specimens has greatly increased our understanding of human prehistory. Currently we are using ancient DNA from individuals buried at Samtavro to gain insight into mortuary practices (through genetic sex determination and relationships of individuals buried in the same tomb) and, by comparing the genetic make-up at Samtavro to other ancient and present-day populations, understand the genetic affinity of this ancient South Caucasian population.


Assoc Prof Chris Briggs, Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, University of Melbourne
Prof Antonio Sagona, Centre of Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne
Prof Colin Groves, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University
Prof Nicky Kilpatrick, Department of Dentistry, The Royal Children's Hospital
Prof Terry Harrison, Department of Anthropology, New York University
Prof Bernard Wood, Department of Anthropology, George Washington University
Dr Wolfgang Haak, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Georgian National Museum


University of Melbourne CNRS Researcher visit "Characterisation of hypomineralised enamel (MIH) in ancient teeth: a way to understand a pathology with unknown aetiology".

The Leakey Foundation General Research Grants "Non-metric dental traits in great apes".

American Association of Physical Anthropology Professional Development Award "The Physical anthropology of the 2200 BC - 600 AD humans from Samtavro in the Caucasus region of Georgia".

Research Publications

  • Ortiz A, Pilbrow V, Villamil C, Bailey S. Harrison T. The Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Affinities of Bunopithecus sericus, a Fossil Hylobatid from the Pleistocene of China. Plos One 2015; 10 (7): e0131206. Published: JUL 8 2015.
  • Pilbrow V, Groves C. Evidence for Divergence in Populations of Bonobos (Pan paniscus) in the Lomami-Lualaba and Kasai-Sankuru Regions Based on Preliminary Analysis of Craniodental Variation. Int J Primatology 2013; 34 (6): 1244-1260.
  • Kallenberger L, Pilbrow V. Using CRANID to test the population affinity of known crania. J Anatomy 2012; 221 (5): 459-464.
  • Pilbrow V. Dental and phylogeographic patterns of variation in gorillas. J Human Evolution 2010; 59 (1): 16-34.
  • Sagona A, Nikolaishvili V, Sagona C, et al. Bridging two continents: renewed investigations at Samtavro, Georgia. TUBA-AR-Turkish Academy of Sciences Journal of Archaeology 2010; 13: 313-334.
  • Pilbrow, V. Patterns of molar variation in great apes and their implications for hominin taxonomy. In: Dental Perspectives on Human Evolution: State of the Art Research in Dental Paleoanthropology. Bailey, SE; Hublin, JJ (Eds), Book Series: Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology: Pages: 9-32. Published: 2007.
  • Pilbrow V. Population systematics of chimpanzees using molar morphometrics. J Human Evolution 2006; 51 (6): 646-662.
  • Pilbrow V. Lingual incisor traits in modern hominoids and an assessment of their utility for fossil hominoid taxonomy. Am J Physical Anthropology 2006; 129 (3): 323-338.
  • Bailey SE, Pilbrow VC, Wood, BA. Interobserver error involved in independent attempts to measure cusp base areas of Pan M(1)s.
    J Anatomy 2004; 205 (4): 323-331.

Research Projects

Faculty Research Themes


School Research Themes

Biomedical Neuroscience, Cellular Imaging & Structural Biology

Key Contact

For further information about this research, please contact Dr Varsha Pilbrow

Department / Centre

Anatomy and Neuroscience

Unit / Centre

Pilbrow laboratory: Physical (biological) anthropology