Standing tall – the fighting advantage of our ancestors

Posted on May 19, 2011


I’m a Londoner born and bred. A rare breed in the capital which has become a melting pot of “diversity”. While I was growing up my mother ensured that my tones remained dulcet by sending me to speech and drama lessons. Every now and again the proper Sarf London accent comes out, but only when squiffy and a bit ranty. My West Indian grandfather also passed on a few handy tips in how to avoid becoming a playground victim. Thankfully I’ve never had to resort to violence and my main weapon of choice would always be my gob, which the Northerner says usually gets me into trouble rather than out.

On Sunday I went to visit my wonderful Nan who turned 88 over the weekend. She lives, for her sins in Peckham. I don’t care what anybody says it’s an area that always has a lot of tension and trouble is never far away. Walking at a fast pace down the high street of Peckham Rye to catch my bus, I couldn’t help but notice an altercation. The commotion was coming from a side street but I didn’t stop to join the baying crowd because I knew what was happening – a punch up.

Standing upright to fight could have provided humans with an evolutionary edge over their competition

New research suggest that one of the reasons we evolved our bi-pedal (two-footed) posture may have been for its fighting advantage. Now I’m no boxing expert but the study says we punch harder standing up, than on all fours. Why anyone would want to punch someone on all fours is beyond me. Anyone with a one track mind can stop that thought right now! Punching downwards is far more forceful than punching upwards, which according to one scientist could be why females prefer taller mates – better competitors, could reflect better genes. Although some girlfriends would argue it’s so that they can wear high heels and still feel petite.

Author of the study Professor David Carrier, of University of Utah said: “Selection for aggressive performance and aggressive behaviour could have been one of the factors that led to the evolution of bipedalism. The results of this study are consistent with the hypothesis that our ancestors adopted bipedal posture so that males would be better at beating and killing each other when competing for females.”

The volunteers in Prof Carrier’s study had to punch a bag at set angles. He measured the force of punches by male boxers and martial arts experts as they hit in four different directions: forward, sideways, down and up.

He added: “When humans are standing on two feet, they punch about 40 to 50 percent harder than when they are supporting themselves on all fours. Our punches also land much harder (about 200 percent harder) when punching downward than up, meaning all else being equal, taller males (who would be hitting their opponent from above) have a fighting advantage.”

And we’re not the only animals to do this. Other animals which adopt a two-footed stance when fighting including many types of cats, dogs and primates. Humans however are the only ones to have kept the posture permanently.

The transition from four-legged to two-legged posture is a defining point in human evolution, and the reason for the shift is still under debate. Some theories include that it was easier for humans to carry and use tools; pick up offspring; decrease the amount of exposure to the sun and reach branches while foraging. Now researchers also believe that boxing may have played its part too.

Prof Carrier said: “Among academics there often is resistance to the reality that humans are a violent species. It’s an intrinsic desire to have us be more peaceful than we are.

“My study provides a mechanistic explanation for why many species of mammals stand bi-pedally to fight.”

While I was in Uganda last year I was able to witness first hand how chimpanzees fight. OK they don’t form a fist, they wallop each other but it’s while they are upright. They fight a bit like girls do, arms flailing everywhere in that slapping downward motion, but trust me, there’s nothing girlie about being whacked by a chimp. They are incredibly powerful. Great apes like chimps, bonobos and gorillas can’t make fists with their hands, so they can’t actually punch. Researchers say it is difficult to directly compare our fighting abilities with theirs. Maybe so, but my money is on a great ape any day.

Herman Pontzer, a researcher at Washington University who wasn’t involved in the study, told the website LiveScience that the paper is an excellent test of human punching abilities, but is cautious about its influence on evolution of bipedalism.

He said: “I don’t feel that this work (or other papers showing that chimpanzees fight or display bipedally) provides particularly strong evidence that hominin bipedalism evolved as an adaptation for fighting.

“If chimpanzees and other quadrupeds can and do adopt bipedal postures to fight — and chimpanzees do this with some ferocity — than why would evolution favor a radical change in anatomy?”

Prof Carrier argues that Australopithicus, a human ancestor, had bodies specialised for this upright fighting stance, most likely between males. He said: “If the biggest threat were other individuals of their own species, which is true for modern humans, then what you have to be good at is competing with other members of your own species.

“Locomotive competition would have been less important, and fighting performance would be more important.”

Prof Carrier isn’t saying women like being victims of domestic violence or fall for thugs, he said: “From the perspective of sexual selection theory, women are attracted to powerful males, not because powerful males can beat them up, but because powerful males can protect them and their children from other males.

“In a world of automatic weapons and guided missiles, male physical strength has little relevance to most conflicts between males,” he adds. “But guns have been common weapons for less than 15 human generations. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that modern females are still attracted to physical traits that predict how their mates would fare in a fight.”

The study is published May 18 in the journal PLoS ONE.