Early humans could probably kill at a distance

It is always refreshing when physical anthropologists perform experiments as well as pondering on bones. It turns out that examining the bio-mechanics of college baseball players can provide useful clues about where in fossil anatomy to look for signs of potential big-game hunters. Anyone who can hurl a baseball, or one of the smaller but much harder red ones preferred by non-Americans, at speeds exceeding 100 kph could in all likelihood bring down a substantial prey animal with a rock and even more so with a spear. At the heart of an important examination of what our forebears might have done to get a meaty meal (Roach, N.T. et al. 2013. Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo. Nature, v. 498, p. 483-486) is a US-Indian team’s sophisticated study of college baseball players’ throwing action using high-speed video, radar and precise timing techniques.

Matt Kata throwing

Matt Kata throwing for the Houston Astros (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that there are several physiological phases in demon ball throwing: rotation of the torso; rotation flexion and extension of the shoulder; flexion and extension of the elbow; and wrist extension. All of these contribute to acceleration of the ball before release. While the thrower steps forward the arm is cocked so that ligaments, tendons and muscles crossing the shoulder become stretched, thereby storing energy. During the acceleration phase the bend in the elbow is snapped straight adding yet more power. Readers should note the difference between this action and that of a bowler in cricket, where the elbow snap is banned on pain of severe penalty and public humiliation of the bowler who ‘chucks’. Since a fast bowler also adds energy by running into the crease, this is a humanitarian aspect of the Rules of cricket, although several legal West Indian bowlers of the past 40 years are still remembered with terror by their batsmen contemporaries. No such stricture is placed on the baseball pitcher who has no run-up.

These observations focus attention on the structure of shoulder and elbow, yielding a robust means of predicting how fast throwers with different configurations may have thrown objects. Chimpanzees make poor players of ball games, although they will throw the odd stick, but just for aggressive show. The same goes for the earliest hominins for which we have suitable fossil material: australopithecines may occasionally have eaten carrion but they couldn’t throw rocks or spears with enough force to bring down anything and their throwing range would have been pathetic. Not so Homo erectus! They were well equipped in the hurling department and could, were they so inclined, have hunted equally as well as modern humans. Interestingly, earlier hominins had some of the physiological necessities of decent throwing, but not all of them. So it seems that the full combination emerged in the evolution of our own genus around 2 Ma ago,

This is in contrast to a view held by some anthropologists, such as Christopher Boehm of the University of Southern California, that big game hunting using projectile weapons emerged only with anatomically modern humans after 250 ka, and most likely only reached its acme 45 ka ago. That assumption, at least by Boehm, is central to notions of how social activities centred on meat sharing may have helped evolve morals, such as altruism and shame (see Boehm, C. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame. Basic Books, New York). That H.erectus would have been able to harness sufficient energy to kill at a distance casts doubt on such assertions. Mere foraging does not require throwing-capable physiology, so how it evolved in early humans with neither the inclination nor bodies to at least begin throwing projectiles at potential prey is something that school might consider.



3 responses to “Early humans could probably kill at a distance

  1. Early humans
    Dear Steve,
    readers of this report may be interested to look up the wooden hunting spears found at the margin of a lignite pit in Northern Germany. Different dating methods yielded ages between 250 000 to 300 000 years.
    Thanking you, Walter
    Thieme H. (1997) Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807-810.

    • Many thanks for the link Walter – I guess they were made by Neanderthals.


      • Walter L. Pohl

        Steve, I would not know, of course. The comments in German mentioned Homo erectus and, elsewhere, heidelbergensis. Maybe that is Neanderthal? But note that no human bones were found at these sites. Regards, Walter

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