Five ways humans evolved to be athletes


The upcoming Olympics will feature some of the most extraordinary human feats in strength, speed and agility. As an archaeologist who focuses on the development of the human species throughout the history of evolution, it’s interesting to consider how and why we have become so good at certain things, from javelin throwing to sprinting. of 500 meters. Much of what makes our bodies capable of athletic prowess comes long before we are Homo sapiens.

Human athletic paleobiology is a branch of research that uses trained athletes to explore the adaptations of the human body. These studies focus on peak metabolism and physical performance, biomechanics of limbs, and other aspects of human anatomy and physiology to get a feel for the types of activities humans might have performed in the past.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the things we humans can do to play good sports, along with a quick rundown of where these skills come from and how long they’ve been around.

1. We run

The ancestors of modern humans have been walking upright for about 4 million years, when members of the genus Australopithecus began to spend more time on the ground than in treetop habitats. Evolve to be bipedal changed a number of things about the structure of the human skeleton. Our pelvis is shorter and wider than that of other living primates. This is because we move by exerting force primarily through the muscles in our buttocks and legs rather than down our backs and shoulders, like a chimpanzee walking on joints. Our lower femurs (the large bone in your thigh) develop a specific shape, called a bicondylar angle, as we learn to walk.

This allows us to move forward in a rolling motion, transfer our weight smoothly side to side as we go along. If you’ve ever seen a gorilla or chimpanzee walk on two legs instead of four, you will notice that they have a much more waddling gait. Our gentler gait helps us walk and run more efficiently.

Homo sapiens‘in particular, with longer legs and shorter Achilles tendons than some of our ancestors, seem particularly well suited to run long distances. Researchers have suggested that early humans were able to hunt prey like antelope or zebra by repeatedly having them run long distances in the midday heat, eventually exhausting them.

2. We sweat

When we compare ourselves to other living primates, one of the most notable differences is the lack of hair and the fact that we sweat. Thermoregulation, the body’s ability to maintain an ideal temperature, is essential for all mammals, but humans are unique in our ability to sweat all over our body, creating evaporative cooling.

When did we lose all our hair and become naked and sweaty creatures? Counterintuitively, studies have shown that humans and chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, actually have roughly the same number of follicles on our bodies. Our hair is simply much shorter and thinner.

So, what motivated the switch from full fur to fine hair? Charles Darwin proposed that it was a sexually selected trait, which our distant female ancestors preferred and mated with less hairy males. However, the most likely scenario has more to do with environmental pressures than sexual pressures. During our evolution in Africa, the shift from forests to more open and warmer environments meant that the ability to stay cool was a major contributor to survival.

Our sweaty people can now participate in sporting events even in hot weather, although climate change could soon make most cities too hot to reasonably host the Summer Olympics.

3. We throw

While the lower half of our body has moved away from an arboreal lifestyle, our upper body remains retains the traits we have inherited tree dwellers. Our glenohumeral joint, the ball-and-socket connection between our upper arm and the scapula, allows us to rotate our arms in a full rotation. This is a very different kind of mobility than quadrupedal animals that don’t sway in trees – a dog or cat’s front legs, for example, sway mostly back and forth. and cannot perform a butterfly stroke. We, however, can.

Our rotating shoulder joint also allows us throw over. the throwing ability with precision and strength seems to come from at least 2 million years ago, with our ancestors homo erectus. Recent research has also shown that Neanderthals could have thrown spears to hunt from a distance. The few known examples of Neanderthal spears have long been thought to be used only for thrusting and close slaughter of prey, in part because when researchers tried to throw aftershocks, they didn’t get far.

Recently, however, researchers have put aftershocks in the hands of trained javelin throwers and were amazed to see the spears fly much further and faster, over 65 feet.

Today, people can throw modern javelins over 90 yards. (Credit: Penn State / Flickr)

4. We are at your fingertips

Human hands are unique in their dexterity, which has evolutionary roots 2 million years ago. Evidence of this early development with hands like ours, with opposable thumbs and the ability to apply force in a strong or delicate grip, comes from a single metacarpal bone – one of the bones that make up the palm – for a hominin found on a site in Kenya. This grip allows us to do everything from gripping a pen to a golf club.

The evolution of our hands included both biological and cultural selection for right-handed versus left-handed. Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens populations seem to have had roughly the same right-handed report left-handed people as well as modern humans. (Today we’re about 85 percent right-handed).

The researchers have suggested that one explanation for this lies in the emphasis on cooperation in human communities (which favors everyone having the same hand to share tools, for example) over competition (which promotes difference, so that a left-hander can beat a right-hander in a fight). Some proofs of this theory comes from sport: a study of the number of elite left-handed athletes in different sports showed that the more competitive the sport, the higher the proportion of left-handed people.

5. We play with balls

Many species of animals play, but humans are the only species that play games that involve organized rules and equipment. We don’t just play by throwing, kicking or otherwise propel balls of various materials, sometimes we do it with sticks, sticks or rackets.

The generally accepted theory of evolutionary origins of the game is that it allows children to learn actions and tasks that they will need to master as adults. In hunter-gatherer populations, games that help children develop accuracy, power, and hand-eye coordination are useful hunting practice. There is ample archaeological evidence to suggest that children played with miniature versions of hunting tools Or other adult trade tools at least come back 400,000 years ago.

Some of the earliest evidence of ball games comes from ancient Egypt: the tomb of a child dating from around 2500 BC. linen rags and twine. In China, the sport of cuju, which was similar to modern football and played with a leather ball stuffed with feathers, is depicted in paintings and is believed to date from 2300 BC.

The most famous ancient ball game, however, has its origins in Mesoamerica. Ceramic figurines and wall paintings dating from 1700 BC. AD and ball fields dating from around 1600 BC. huge and complex part of Olmec, Aztec and Mayan society.

Modern players are recreating a game of pok-ta-pok, originally played by the ancient Mayans. (Credit: Sputnik / Wikimedia Commons)

Anna goldfield is professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. This story was originally published on SAPIENS. Read the original article here.

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