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

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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Figure 1: Model of elastic energy storage.
Figure 2: Shoulder rotation and elbow flexion–extension power.
Figure 3: Shoulder-brace restriction condition.
Figure 4: Humeral torsion and throwing performance.

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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.).

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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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neil T. Roach.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Notes 1-23, Supplementary Figures 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-6 and Supplementary References. (PDF 1230 kb)

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Roach, N., Venkadesan, M., Rainbow, M. et al. Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo . Nature 498, 483–486 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12267

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