Portrait of Professor Tracy Kivell

Professor Tracy Kivell

Professor of Biological Anthropology
Head of School
Director of the Animal Postcranial Evolution (APE) Lab


Professor Tracy Kivell is a palaeoanthropologist who studies the evolution of the postcranial skeleton in living and fossil primates, including our human ancestors (hominins). Her research focuses on the functional morphology of the hand in fossil apes and hominins to further our understanding of the origin of human bipedalism, tool use and manipulation throughout our evolutionary history. Tracy aims to better understand the relationship between bone shape and function through analyses of ontogeny (development), internal (trabecular and cortical) bone structure, and the biomechanics of primate locomotion. 

Professor Kivell received her PhD in 2007 from the University of Toronto, working on the developmental morphology of the ape wrist and the origin of human bipedalism. Before coming to the University of Kent, she was a Research Associate, teaching human gross anatomy at Duke University, USA (2007-2009), and was postdoctoral Junior Researcher in the Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany (2009-2013). Tracy has participated in palaeontological field excavations at Miocene sites in Hungary as well as Plio-Pleistocene sites in South Africa. 

Research interests

Professor Tracy Kivell’s current research interests include:

  • functional morphology of the primate postcranial skeleton 
  • internal (trabecular and cortical) bone structure in extant and fossil primate hands to better understand the evolution of locomotion and manipulation in hominins 
  • biomechanical analyses of terrestrial and arboreal locomotion in apes
  • functional morphology of fossil hand bones of Miocene hominoids.

Projects in which she is involved include the following:

  • NEWHUMAN Pathways to humanity: adaptive niche diversity at the origins of the human lineage (PI: Matthew Skinner, Senior Staff Member: Tracy Kivell; funded by European Research Council Consolidator Grant 2019-2024)
  • GRASP  Evolution of the human hand: Grasping trees and tools (PI: Tracy Kivell; funded by European Research Council Starting Grant 2014-2019)
  • Director of research on Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi hand fossils: investigation of Au. sediba and H. naledi hand remains from South Africa in collaboration with, among others, Lee Berger (University of the Witwatersrand), Matthew Tocheri (Lakehead University), Caley Orr (University of Colorado), and Steve Churchill (Duke University). 
  • Fossil hominin and hominoid hand use: comparative investigation of fossil hominin (australopiths to Neanderthals) and Miocene hominoid hand remains using morphometric and micro-CT data. This research aims to shed light on locomotor and tool-use behaviours throughout the evolution of the human lineage. Collaborators include: Matthew Skinner (Kent), Matthew Tocheri (Lakehead University), Erin-Marie Williams-Hatala (Chatham University), Steve Churchill (Duke University), Antonio Rosas (MNCN, Madrid) and David Begun (University of Toronto). 
  • Functional signals in trabecular and cortical bone structure: a comparative investigation of internal bony morphology of the primate hand and other regions of the postcranial skeleton to assess variation in joint loading patterns and how this reflects differences in locomotor and manipulative behaviours. Collaborators include: Matthew Skinner (Kent), Dieter Pahr and Alex Synek (Vienna University of Technology), Jean-Jacques Hublin (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology).
  • Biomechanics of primate locomotion: investigation of variation in biomechanics of terrestrial and arboreal locomotion in apes as well as other primates, including the aye aye, in both captive and natural settings. Collaborators include: Daniel Schmitt (Duke University) and Roshna Wunderlich (James Madison University).


Professor Kivell teaches on the following modules:


  • SE302: Foundations in Biological Anthropology
  • SE541: Palaeoanthropology


  • SE8013: Skeletal Functional Morphology (starting September 2019)


Professor Kivell can offer supervision of PhD and MA/MSc research within any of her areas of interest – functional morphology of the postcranial skeleton, including external and internal (using microCT data) bony morphology and primate locomotor behaviour, with a particular focus on the upper limb.

Postdoctoral researchers

  • Dr Julia Arias-Martorell (Maria Sklodowska-Curie Fellow)
  • Dr Ameline Bardo (Fyssen Foundation Fellow) 
  • Dr Alastair Key (British Academy Fellow) 
  • Dr Szu-Ching Lu (ERC Postdoctoral Researcher, 2015-18) 
  • Dr Diana Samuel (ERC Postdoctoral Researcher, 2014-16) 

Current PhD students

  • Simon Chapple: Assessing the variability and complexity of occlusal tooth patterning in primate enamel-dentine junction morphology as it relates to current systems of tooth crown nomenclature (co-supervisor)
  • Kim Deckers: Ontogenetic changes in internal bone structure: a study of the primate upper limb with implications for the evolution of human locomotion and manipulation (primary supervisor)
  • Chris Dunmore: Skeletal form and function of the primate hand (co-supervisor)
  • Leoni Georgiou: Locomotor signals in the trabecular structure of the femur in extant and extinct hominoids (co-supervisor) 
  • Emma Bird: It’s all in the wrist: understanding the evolution of Homo tool-making through internal bone structure (primary supervisor)
  • Victoria Lockwood: Pressure and kinematics of the human hand during arboreal locomotion and tool behaviours (George Washington University, USA) (co-supervisor) 

Past PhD students

  • Johanna Neufuss (PhD in 2017)Hand use and posture during locomotor and non-locomotor behaviours in wild, habituated gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos
  • Zewdi Tsegai (PhD in 2018): Systemic and functional patterns of human and chimpanzee internal bone structure: a regional, systemic and ontogenetic approach (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) 
  • Nicholas Stephens (PhD in 2018): Functional morphology of the hand: Detecting behaviour during life by way of variation in internal trabecular architecture (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) 

Past Masters' students

  • Victoria Lockwood (2017-18): Biomechanics of the human hand during suspensory arboreal locomotion: a combined pressure and kinematic approach
  • Ann-Marie Schilling (2011-2012)Trabecular bone structure in the primate wrist


  • Research Associate, Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) 2013-present. 
  • Soapbox Science Canterbury, co-organiser of the first Soapbox Science events in Kent, sharing the research of women scientists with the public. 
  • Biological Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network (BAWMN), Steering Committee since 2010, Chair in 2011-12.

Professor Tracy Kivell strongly supports the public understanding of science, and particularly the promotion of women in science. She has done radio and/or television interviews for the BBC, NPR and CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, and Daily Planet, including BBC4’s 'Dissected: The Incredible Human Hand and Foot'. She is available to provide academic comment on topics related to the evolution of human tool use and locomotion, primate manipulative abilities, or functional morphology in the human or primate skeleton more broadly. 

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