Five Ways Humans Evolved to Become Athletes | Science


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, limb biomechanics, 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.

We will 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. Evolving into a bipedal has 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 walk in a rolling motion, shifting our weight smoothly from side to side as we move forward. 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 running 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.

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 of our hair and become naked, 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 this 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 has meant that the ability to stay cool has greatly contributed 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.

We throw

While the lower half of our body has moved away from an arboreal lifestyle, our upper body still retains the traits we have inherited from tree dwellers. Our glenohumeral joint, the ball-and-socket connection between our upper arm and the scapula, allows us to rotate our arms in 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.

Olympian Caeleb Dressel competes in the 100-meter butterfly in Tokyo. Our ball and socket joints in our arms allow us to throw and swim the butterfly.

(Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Our rotating shoulder joint also allows us to throw overhand. The ability to throw with precision and force seems to have originated 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 put aftershocks in the hands of trained javelin throwers and were amazed to see the spears fly much farther and faster, over 65 feet.

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 of 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 form the palm – for a hominin found at a site in Kenya. This grip allows us to do everything from gripping a pen to a golf club.

The evolution of our hands has included both biological and cultural selection for right-handed and left-handed individuals. Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens populations seem to have had roughly the same ratio of right-handed to left-handed individuals 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 evidence for 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.

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 throwing balls of various materials, we sometimes do it with sticks, sticks or rackets.

Olympic basketball

Nigeria face France in an Olympic basketball match in Tokyo. Some of the earliest evidence of ancient ball games comes from ancient Egypt.

(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

The generally accepted theory for the evolutionary origins of play 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 craft tools dating back at least 400,000 years.

Some of the earliest evidence of ball games comes from ancient Egypt: the tomb of a child dating from around 2500 BC. 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.

This story was originally published on Sapiens, an anthropology magazine.

Anna Goldfield, an archaeologist with a PhD from Boston University, specializes in the analysis of faunal remains from archaeological sites, with a particular focus on the diets of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. She is currently an adjunct professor of anthropology at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento and the University of California, Davis. Goldfield is the illustrator of The Neanderthal child of Roc de Marsal: a prehistoric mystery and co-host of “The Dirt”, an archeology podcast. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaGoldfield.


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