Athletic evolution: Comparing modern athletes to ancestral warriors

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Credit: Heinz Ducklau/AP

Scholars have long argued that Neanderthal weapons were too hefty to hurl and, therefore, had to be thrust directly into prey. Compared with throwing from afar, this jabbing technique would have been high risk, low return — and could have played a role in Neanderthals’ eventual extinction.

But “in the hands of an expert, you see quite a different picture,” [archaeologist Annemieke Milks] says. “The spears perform well. They fly.”

Milks is not the only scientist enlisting athletes to answer questions about human evolution. Her experiment substituted javelin throwers for spear hunters; other recent studies have used runners to approximate ancient foragers and subbed in rowers for early farmers. With intense training regimens, athletes face physical demands more akin to our highly active ancestors. And some athletes push themselves to extremes — allowing researchers to study the human body in survival mode.

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[T]he approach revealed the hard work of Central Europe’s early farming women. It seems their daily grind, 2,000 to 7,000 years ago, was as strenuous as the training of elite female athletes today. For a 2017 Science Advances study, Stock’s then-graduate student Alison Murray compared bone strength among 30 Neolithic women and present-day runners, soccer players, rowers and non-athletes…. “The big finding was, whoa, when you look at their arms, they were much stronger than even the rowers,” says Murray.

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