April 10, 2009

Strong apes and fast humans

The paper is freely accessible.

Current Anthropology doi:10.1086/592023

The Strength of Great Apes and the Speed of Humans

Alan Walker


Cliff Jolly developed a causal model of human origins in his paper “The Seed‐Eaters,” published in 1970. He was one of the first to attempt this, and the paper has since become a classic. I do not have such grand goals; instead, I seek to understand a major difference between the living great apes and humans. More than 50 years ago, Maynard Smith and Savage (1956) showed that the musculoskeletal systems of mammals can be adapted for strength at one extreme and speed at the other but not both. Great apes are adapted for strength—chimpanzees have been shown to be about four times as strong as fit young humans when normalized for body size. The corresponding speed that human limb systems gain at the expense of power is critical for effective human activities such as running, throwing, and manipulation, including tool making. The fossil record can shed light on when the change from power to speed occurred. I outline a hypothesis that suggests that the difference in muscular performance between the two species is caused by chimpanzees having many fewer small motor units than humans, which leads them, in turn, to contract more muscle fibers earlier in any particular task. I outline a histological test of this hypothesis.


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