MSc in Human Anatomy and Evolution

Course Director: Dr Laura Fitton

At a glance

Explore the evolution of human anatomy

Why choose this course?

This course, co-badged with the Hull York Medical School, offers a unique opportunity to study human anatomy from an evolutionary perspective. You will investigate how the anatomy of the human body has developed over time; the biology of bone, teeth and soft tissue; explore the physical capabilities of early humans, primates and other mammals; and use advanced virtual-modelling techniques to reconstruct the functional anatomy of our ancestors.

The teaching staff on this course have been at the forefront of developments in evolutionary anatomy for the past ten years, and continue to lead the field worldwide. The course will give you a detailed understanding of human and primate evolution, focusing on anatomy and morphology and their interfaces with ecology and behaviour. You will be based at the leading Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences at HYMS on the University of York campus

  • Unique opportunity to combine evolutionary anatomy with state-of-the-art virtual-modelling techniques, statistical analysis of form and virtual biomechanical simulation
  • Gain experience of cadaveric dissection
  • Gain a sound biological underpinning to interpret the anatomical fossil record
  • Use advanced equipment including 3D visualisation and modelling software, materials testing, surface scanning, medical imaging and 3D printing
  • Take part in cutting-edge science and build essential practical skills
  • Receive career and research guidance from staff with significant experience in the sector

Person studying digital and paper images of skulls

What does the course cover?

The course will equip you with the practical and theoretical knowledge to interpret skeletal anatomy, including the fossil record. You will gain practical knowledge of anatomy through dissection of human cadaveric material, as well as comparative anatomical study, and receive training in advanced morphometrics, imaging and functional simulation tools. You will also undertake a research project of your choice, in consultation with your supervisor, to investigate a topical issue in human evolution.

Who is it for?

The MSc in Human Anatomy and Evolution is best suited to students with a science background, with a first degree in anatomy, anthropology, archaeology, biology, biomechanics, physics, psychology, zoology or a related subject. It is also designed for medical students who wish to intercalate.

Membership of the interdisciplinary PALAEO Centre at the University of York also makes this MSc an attractive option for those wishing to combine anatomical and archaeological approaches to the study of palaeoanthropology.

What can it lead to?

Having worked with world leaders in the study of human evolutionary anatomy, students graduating from this course find themselves among the thought leaders in the field. This can lead into further research at PhD level, or into a whole range of careers in academia, research, teaching, 3D visualisation, medicine and many diverse occupations.

See what our alumni have to say about the course:

“The MSc in Human Evolution gave me a great deal of freedom to follow my own interests but at the same time it provided me the necessary support to develop the required abilities and knowledge to develop as a researcher.”

Thomas Püschel (2013), PhD student, University of Manchester

Person carry out lab work on a cranium

Course content

Study theories and techniques at the cutting edge of evolutionary anatomy 

This one-year MSc course is taught via a combination of lectures, seminars and lab-based practicals. You will study three core modules andtwo or three optional modules. Finally, you will produce a dissertation and give an assessed presentation of your research. 

During the autumn and spring terms, you will study three core modules, each worth 20 credits. These are:

Human evolutionary anatomy
Gain an advanced understanding of the hominin fossil record, focusing particularly on the interpretation of anatomical material and current methods. Examine casts and CT scans of the major fossil specimens, as well as comparative material.

Primate ecology and evolution
Develop an advanced knowledge of primate ecology and evolution, from the origins of the Order around 65 million years ago to the present day. Understand the wider context of primates within mammals.

Hard tissue biology
Examine the structure, function, growth and development of mineralised skeletal and dental tissues. Understand how skeletal and dental hard tissues can be used for the recovery of information on growth, development and life history.

You will study two or three further 10- or 20-credit modules (totalling 40 credits). These could include any of the following:

Geometric morphometrics (10 credits)
Work with internationally renowned specialists to gain a firm foundation in the essential theory and practice of geometric morphometrics, and how it is applied to the study of phenotypic and functional variation.

Virtual anatomies (10 credits)
Explore the theory and practice of modern imaging, 3D modelling and visualisation methods (‘virtual anatomies’) and their application to research questions in human and primate evolution.

Functional and musculoskeletal anatomy (20 credits)
Gain a firm foundation in human musculoskeletal anatomy from the perspectives of function and evolution. Explore the evolution and development of limbs, their common organisation and different functions.

Special topics in musculoskeletal anatomy (20 credits)
For intercalating medical students: Extend your understanding and knowledge of the musculoskeletal system in relation to a specific anatomical topic. Examine human anatomy from the perspective of function and evolution, through dissection.

Becoming human (20 credits)
Consider the fascinating question of what it means to be ‘human’. Study the key phases in the evolution of ‘humanity’, and gain a critical awareness of how the evidence is interpreted.

Ancient biomolecules (20 credits)
Learn to interpret biomolecular data sets. Examine how biomolecules are preserved, extracted and analysed from ancient skeletal tissues.

Two people examining and discussing skulls


You will also complete a dissertation on a research project chosen in consultation with your supervisor, and give an assessed presentation.

Past dissertation topics have included:

Philip Morris: “Elucidating differences in the feeding ecology of extant apes using finite element analysis.”

Thomas Püschel: “Biomechanical modelling of human femoral a comparison between agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers using FEA, GMM and beam theory.”

Amber Collings: “The morphology and functional significance of mammalian temporal fasciae.”

Edwin Dickinson: “Assessing the potential for functional equivalence within the masticatory apparatus of a hard-object feeding primate (Cercocebus atys) during development.”

James Lumbard: “Intraspecific variation and mechanical advantage in the cranium of Pan troglodytes.”

For more information about the dissertation project, visit: 

“I found the support given to me by the staff to be a tremendous help, and by the time I graduated I felt that I had become a competent and independent researcher and scientist.”

Phil Morris (2013) PhD student, Hull York Medical School


Learn from thought leaders in human anatomy and evolution 

Teaching for this course is conducted in small groups by an internationally renowned group of staff from the Archaeology department and Hull-York Medical School. One of the unrivalled benefits of this course is the opportunity to work with award-winning teachers in subjects such as geometric morphometrics. The teaching staff for this course include:

Dr Laura Fitton
Director of Studies, Human Anatomy and Evolution. Laura’s research focuses on masticatory biomechanics and the functional significance of morphological variation from a developmental and evolutionary perspective. Her research work combines virtual modelling and dissection with novel analytical techniques from the field of engineering, such as finite element analysis (FEA), multibody dynamic analysis (MDA) and material testing.

Prof. Paul O’Higgins
Head of Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences. Paul’s principal research interests concern the links between morphological variation, phylogeny, function and ontogeny in primates and other mammals. He is renowned for his work developing and applying geometric morphometrics to primate and human craniofacial evolution and growth, and for his work in the analysis of craniofacial mechanics.

Dr Phil Cox
Lecturer in Physiology. Phil’s research is concerned with the mammalian skull and how it has been shaped by both evolution and function. He is particularly interested in the use of medical imaging in comparative anatomy, and was involved in the development of contrast-enhanced microCT scanning, a technique for visualising soft tissues.

Dr Samuel Cobb
Senior Lecturer in Anatomy. Sam's research explores how the jaws, teeth and muscles of the masticatory system develop and evolve together, and how the integration of these structures may constrain function in the masticatory system. Currently this work is primarily on mice but includes other mammals and birds. Methods include shape analysis, imaging, material testing of tooth function, finite element analysis, multibody dynamic analysis and jaw kinematics.

Dr Peter Bazira
Senior Lecturer in Clinical Anatomy. Peter is our designated individual under the Human Tissues Act. His wider research interests are in medical education, anatomical education and computer-based learning.

Additional teaching and support is provided by other specialists who lead various optional modules on the course. These include Dr Penny Spikins, Prof. Matthew Collins and Dr Michelle Alexander.

“This course uniquely provides students with a comprehensive foundation in these new methods as well as detailed training in musculoskeletal form, function and evolution of our species. This is based on our world-leading research in these areas and so occurs within the context of active lab-based research that will broaden your experience and provide exciting opportunities for your research training.”

Paul O’Higgins, Head of Centre for Anatomical and Human Sciences

Person examining skull through a microscope


Your springboard to advanced research and varied careers 

The aims of the MSc in Human Anatomy and Evolution are:

a) to provide students with a detailed understanding of human anatomy and evolution, including the evolution of our closest relatives, the primates, with a particular focus on anatomy and morphology and their interface with ecology and behaviour.

b) to provide students with practical and theoretical knowledge about the battery of cutting-edge tools and approaches used to interpret functional and evolutionary anatomy.

c) to enable students to undertake a detailed research project applying the skills and knowledge acquired in the programme to investigate current questions in human anatomy and evolution.

Person manipulating a digital image of a skull with a graphics tablet

By the end of the course you will be able to: 

  • Discuss and appraise anatomy and variation in an evolutionary, functional and ecological context
  • Describe in detail the methods used in human anatomy and evolution research and explain the limitations of these methods.
  • Describe in detail the microstructure, growth and development of hard tissues (bones and teeth) with particular reference to form, function and adaptation.
  • Describe, synthesise and critically evaluate current views of human and primate evolutionary anatomy and origins, the fossil evidence, and the environmental and ecological factors that influenced human and primate evolution.
  • Critically analyse the different theories of primate origins and relate and compare the evolution and ecology of non-human primates to hominins and humans.
  • Formulate research questions, design and carry out a research project examining an aspect of human anatomy and evolution, including evaluating research findings and recognising the limitations of specific approaches.
  • Present your work verbally and in writing in structured, coherent and scientific ways appropriate to the material, dissemination medium and audience, conforming to academic convention 

Where next?

The skills and techniques you learn will position you as a leader in the field of human evolutionary anatomy. As well as providing a platform for more advanced research, this will equip you well for careers in a whole range of academic, medical and archaeological fields.

Find out what some of our alumni have said about the course and how it improved their career and research prospects:

“The range of material covered in the course as a whole and of assessment styles used really allows you to focus on particular topics of personal interest and has helped me gain volunteer positions in natural history museum departments with a view to entering this field professionally in the future.”

James Lumbard (2014)


Where next? A word from our alumni

Alumni of the MSc in Human Anatomy and Evolution have gone on to take up varied research posts thanks to the advanced skills and expertise they gained on this course.

Here’s what some recent graduates had to say about the course:

James Lumbard (Human Evolution 2013-14)

James Lumbard

“For me the best part of the course was the hands-on manner in which functional and musculoskeletal anatomy was taught, which allowed us to gain real insight into and understanding of the human musculoskeletal system, and made it far easier to imagine the effects of morphological change of the skeleton over evolutionary time.

“The range of material covered in the course as a whole and of assessment styles used really allows you to focus on particular topics of personal interest and has helped me gain volunteer positions in natural history museum departments with a view to entering this field professionally in the future.”

Phil Morris (MSc Human Evolution 2012-13) currently PhD student, Hull York Medical School

Phil Morris

“I was a part of the first cohort of students to study for the MSc in Human Evolution, having completed a BSc in Archaeology at the University of York earlier that year. Despite coming from a not particularly scientific background I found the support given to me by the staff to be a tremendous help, and by the time I graduated I felt that I had become a competent and independent researcher and scientist. The skills I learned as a part of the MSc were a key factor in my being offered the PhD place for which I am now studying.”

Thomas Püschel (Human Evolution 2012-13), currently PhD student, University of Manchester

Thomas PĆ¼schel

“For me, my MSc year was really remarkable. Thanks to the MSc in Human Evolution I have learned diverse skills that noticeably increased my research abilities. Furthermore, the course not only provided me with cutting-edge technical skills, but also a comprehensive theoretical background in evolution, primatology, functional anatomy, biomechanics and palaeoanthropology. The MSc in Human Evolution gave me a great deal of freedom to follow my own interests but at the same time it provided me the necessary support to develop the required abilities and knowledge to develop as a researcher. All the members of the staff are highly qualified researchers who always offered me encouragement and support to fulfil the course. Due to this, I not only developed a range of skills that have enabled me to confidently pursue a career in evolutionary anthropology (I am currently a PhD student), but it was also a great life experience.”


To apply for this course, you will need:

  • A good honours degree (upper second or first class) or an equivalent qualification from an overseas institution in anatomy, anthropology, archaeology, biology, psychology, zoology and related fields.
  • IELTS 7 for applicants whose first language is not English.
  • For intercalating students, a minimum of three years of successful MBBS or comparable medical qualifications is required.

First, check our How to apply page, which explains what information the Department needs from you.



Two people comparing femurs

Laura Fitton‌‌


“There is no comparable course to this in the UK. You will gain unequalled grounding in skeletal anatomy and the human fossil record, hands-on practical experience in human anatomy and use cutting-edge techniques for the analysis of musculoskeletal form, function and the evolution of our species.”

Dr Laura Fitton