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Fistfights Drove Human Face Evolution, Utah Researchers Suggest


FILE - Fist fighters battle during the Musangwe, an age old tradition where men and boys display their fighting skills, at Gaba Village in Limpopo province, South Africa.

FILE - Fist fighters battle during the Musangwe, an age old tradition where men and boys display their fighting skills, at Gaba Village in Limpopo province, South Africa.

The human face evolved so that it could take a punch, researchers suggest in a new study.

It's a much more violent explanation than the leading alternative, that our skulls changed to accommodate a diet of hard-to-chew foods. And the authors said it suggests a pugilistic past where violence was key to our evolution.

When people fight, they go for the face, said study co-author Mike Morgan. University of Utah researchers contend that human faces evolved to minimize injury from punches to the face during fights between males. Top to bottom: chimpanzee, our closest primate relative; hominid ancestors Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus; and modern human. (University of Utah)

University of Utah researchers contend that human faces evolved to minimize injury from punches to the face during fights between males. Top to bottom: chimpanzee, our closest primate relative; hominid ancestors Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus; and modern human. (University of Utah)


Morgan knows a little something about fights. He is a black belt in two martial arts and is training as an emergency medicine physician at the University of Utah.

"It gives me first-hand experience with a lot of the end results of human violence and aggression," he said.

Strong jaw

In the new study in the journal Biological Reviews, Morgan and his University of Utah co-author, David Carrier, noted that over the past 4 million years, our hominid ancestors evolved thicker and less protruding jaws, stronger jaw muscles and teeth, and a reinforced bone under the eye socket -- all areas that take a beating in a fight.

Last year, the authors published a paper detailing how the fist evolved over that time to be a better fighting weapon.

Only humans fight with fists. Dogs bite. Cats scratch. Antelopes gore. Our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, can't form fists. They slap.

Morgan said a punch hurts more than a slap because it delivers force to a smaller area.

"If you have a better weapon, you can theoretically win more mates," which means more chances to pass on your genes, which is what evolution is all about, he said.

Better defenses

And as the weapon got better, Morgan's research proposed, so did the defense.

"As we developed this ability to form a fist, we see an equal development in the robusticity and strength of the most commonly struck portions of the face," Morgan said.

All this suggests an extremely violent human evolutionary history.

"At one point in time, it made sense for us to be aggressive and violent," Morgan said. "It guaranteed the survival of our species."

Brains may have won out over brawn in the evolution of the modern human species.

The researchers note that our skulls are weaker in some of the same key areas compared to earlier ancestral species - changes that coincide with a decline in upper-body strength and a less powerful punch.

Skeptics

However, the fist-evolution study did not convince critics, who noted that fists are good for gripping tools and other uses besides fighting. Morgan expects a vigorous debate over his latest study, too.

"This is certainly a creative new idea," said George Washington University anthropologist Brian Richmond, "but there is abundant evidence to support the hypothesis that changes in diet and food processing best explain the decrease in the size of the face during human evolution."

Morgan promised the fight over the competing theories will end peacefully.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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