In order to determine the extent to which the shape of the synapsid skull is adapted for resisting the mechanical loads to which it is subjected, block- or simple plate-shaped finite-element models were constructed and loaded with external muscle and bite forces in locations estimated to resemble points of application of these forces. These 2D or 3D finite-element models were iteratively loaded and modified by removing elements that experience only low stresses, and the resulting morphologies of the models were compared with fossil skulls of synapsids and the skulls of extant mammals. The results suggest that the stress flows in these unspecific models are very similar to the arrangement of bone material in real skulls. Morphological differences between taxa depend on a few a priori conditions: length and position of the tooth rows in relation to the braincase, arrangement of muscles, position of the orbits, and position of the nasal opening. Given these initial conditions, finite-element analysis consistently reveals the close similarity between stress flows and real skulls. The major difference between mammal-like reptiles and primates is the size of the braincase. This difference accounts for most of the morphological divergence. The postorbital bar seems to be a constructional element of the skull, rather than a means to protect the eyes. The skull shapes of higher primates are determined mainly by masticatory forces and less by external forces acting on the head. This study demonstrates the utility of finite-element modeling for testing hypotheses regarding relationships between form and function in vertebrate skulls. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.