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Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo

Nature volume 498, pages 483486 (27 June 2013) | Download Citation

Abstract

Some primates, including chimpanzees, throw objects occasionally1,2, but only humans regularly throw projectiles with high speed and accuracy. Darwin noted that the unique throwing abilities of humans, which were made possible when bipedalism emancipated the arms, enabled foragers to hunt effectively using projectiles3. However, there has been little consideration of the evolution of throwing in the years since Darwin made his observations, in part because of a lack of evidence of when, how and why hominins evolved the ability to generate high-speed throws4,5,6,7,8. Here we use experimental studies of humans throwing projectiles to show that our throwing capabilities largely result from several derived anatomical features that enable elastic energy storage and release at the shoulder. These features first appear together approximately 2 million years ago in the species Homo erectus. Taking into consideration archaeological evidence suggesting that hunting activity intensified around this time9, we conclude that selection for throwing as a means to hunt probably had an important role in the evolution of the genus Homo.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Wyss Institute, L. Stirling, A. Biewener, R. Wrangham, S. Larson, B. Roach, L. Meszoly, A. Lobell and many undergraduate research assistants for their feedback, help and support. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0961943 to N.T.R. and D.E.L.), the American School for Prehistoric Research (to N.T.R. and D.E.L.) and the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (500158/Z/09/Z to M.V.).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Neil T. Roach
    •  & Daniel E. Lieberman
  2. Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology, Department of Anthropology, The George Washington University, Washington DC 20052, USA

    • Neil T. Roach
  3. National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore, Karnataka 560065, India

    • Madhusudhan Venkadesan
  4. Spaulding National Running Center, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Michael J. Rainbow

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Contributions

N.T.R. and D.E.L. designed the study and wrote the paper. N.T.R. collected and analysed the data with help from D.E.L., M.V. and M.J.R. All authors helped to edit the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neil T. Roach.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Notes 1-23, Supplementary Figures 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-6 and Supplementary References.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12267

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