In vivo data demonstrates that strain is not distributed uniformly on the surface of the primate skull during feeding. However, in vivo studies are unable to identify or track changes in stress and strain throughout the whole structure. Finite element (FE) analysis, a powerful engineering tool long used to predict the performance of man-made devices, has the capacity to track stress/strain in three dimensions (3-D) and, despite the time-consuming nature of model generation, FE has become an increasingly popular analytical device among biomechanists. Here, we apply the finite element method using sophisticated computer models to examine whether 3-D stress and strain distributions are nonuniform throughout the primate skull, as has been strongly suggested by 2-D in vivo strain analyses. Our simulations document steep internal stress/strain gradients, using models comprising up to three million tetrahedral finite elements and 3-D reconstructions of jaw adducting musculature with both cranium and mandible in correct anatomical position. Results are in broad concurrence with the suggestion that few regions of the hominid cranium are clearly optimized for routine feeding and also show that external stress/strain does not necessarily reflect internal distributions. Findings further suggest that the complex heterogeneity of bone in the skull may act to dissipate stress, but that consequently higher strain must be offset by additional strain energy. We hypothesize that, despite energetic costs, this system may lend adaptive advantage through enhancing the organism's ability to modify its behavior before reaching catastrophic failure in bony or dental structures. Anat Rec, 290:1248–1255, 2007. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.