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simoncito's picture
the human fist - evolution's gift to martial artists?

Those who like a bit of popular science might enjoy reading this piece: http://networkedblogs.com/GaIjF

Personally, I am not convinced. Humans are the most dangerous animal on earth - but not by physical prowess, but thanks to intellectual capacities and general meanness. We haven't evolved to have a dangerous body, but a dangerous mind - if we choose.

I'm sure not everbody will agree ...

Wastelander's picture

That is an interesting article. I am not an evolutionary biologist, but I do not agree with the idea that fist-fighting was so prevalent in our ancestral history that we had to evolve hands specifically for that purpose. In my mind, it is more likely that our ancestors fought more like chimps do, as the video linked in that article shows, which would lead to palms suited for impact rather than fists, which are complex and built of small bones and a linkage of joints that makes it a naturally poor tool for striking unless properly conditioned. I think that the hand is much more suited to fine motor skills that allow us to use more complex tools than other primates are able to use. I suppose that fighting could, perhaps, have played some part in making the fist a slightly stronger tool for fighting, but I doubt that was the primary influence on its development.

I'll run it past my aspiring-biology-teacher-brother and a scientist martial artist I know and see what they think.

Sebastian B.
Sebastian B.'s picture

I´ve just thought about the fact, that chimps are known as the only animal - exept humans - that wage war against each other. We´ve got equal ancestors, so why shouldn´t the human fist has been formed through these "wars". In my opinion the fist was never designed as a weapon against other animals. It was designed to fight other humans. Making a fist is something typical human. I think it is a part of our genom, nothing trained. And if it is in our genom, it must have its purpose. If men fight each other, maybe because of a woman, they still use their fists, It´s something instinctive.  In a fight between to "rivals", you will barely see something other. There is a reason, why biting  and scratching is taboo in nearly all cutural environments ( I don´t wan´t to say, that we shouldn´t use it, if we are in danger). It is also said, that you are not "allowed" to hit womans. There are also way more male soldiers, especially in the first years of humanity, then females. So in my opinion the fist was designed in fights among men. The men whith "better fists" were the winner of these fights. Maybe you can say, that the fist was a product of the evolution, but not your whole hand. But I have no idea, why we use our fists to strike. We are the only animal, who uses this way of fighting. And once, there must be someone, who started to use it. If I get a new idea, i´ll post it. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All, The BBC did a report on this too which may be of interest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20790294 All the best, Iain Fighting may have shaped the evolution of the human hand, according to a new study by a US team. The University of Utah researchers used instruments to measure the forces and acceleration when martial artists hit a punch bag. They found that the structure of the fist provides support that increases the ability of the knuckles to transmit "punching" force. Details have been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. "We asked the question: 'can you strike harder with a fist than with an open palm?'," co-author David Carrier told BBC News. There may be only one set of skeletal proportions that allows the hand to function both as a mechanism for precise manipulation and as a club for striking” "We were surprised because the fist strikes were not more forceful than the strikes with the palm. In terms of the work on the bag there is really no difference." Of course, the surface that strikes the target with a fist is smaller, so there is more stress from a fist strike. "The force per area is higher in a fist strike and that is what causes localised tissue damage," said Prof Carrier. "There is a performance advantage in that regard. But the real focus of the study was whether the proportions of the human hand allow buttressing (support)." The team found that making a clenched fist did indeed provide protective buttressing for the delicate bones of the hand. Making a fist increased the stiffness of the second meta-carpo-phalangeal, or MCP, joint (these joints are the knuckles visible when the hand is clenched as a fist) by a factor of four. It also doubled the ability of the proximal phalanges (the bones of the fingers that articulate with the MCP joints) to transmit a punching force. In their paper, Prof Carrier and Michael H Morgan from the University of Utah's school of medicine, point out that the human hand has also been shaped by the need for manual dexterity. But they say that a number of different hand proportions are compatible with an enhanced ability to manipulate objects. "There may, however, be only one set of skeletal proportions that allows the hand to function both as a mechanism for precise manipulation and as a club for striking," the researchers write. "Ultimately, the evolutionary significance of the human hand may lie in its remarkable ability to serve two seemingly incompatible, but intrinsically human, functions." Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos do not generally form fists, and the researchers think they are unable to: when a chimp curls up its fingers it forms a doughnut shape. Prof Carrier commented: "The question for me is 'why wasn't this discussed 30, 40 years ago.' As far as I know it isn't in the literature." Asked whether the idea that aggression may have played a key role in shaping the human body might previously have been unpalatable to researchers, Prof Carrier explained: "I think we're more in that situation now than we were in the past. "I think there is a lot of resistance, maybe more so among academics than people in general - resistance to the idea that, at some level humans are by nature aggressive animals. I actually think that attitude, and the people who have tried to make the case that we don't have a nature - those people have not served us well. "I think we would be better off if we faced the reality that we have these strong emotions and sometimes they prime us to behave in violent ways. I think if we acknowledged that we'd be better able to prevent violence in future."

JWT's picture

I've read the whole paper.  I wasn't convinced.

They didn't look at

How much buttressing protects the hand in non bipedal movement on the ground in other apes.

How other apes strike each other and in what proportion (ie open hand, closed hand, weapon) - since apes use weapons just like our hominid ancestors.

How other apes strike prey and in what proportion (ie open hand, closed hand, weapon)

They have not compared the level of impact any of the apes can make with their hand configurations against human impact to see if the human configuration bestows benefit.

They don't seem to have disproved or weakened the obvious (and standard) hypothesis that our hands shortened (by comparison with other apes) as we were no longer using them as feet.

They seem (to me) to have not used a very obvious fist configuration (closer to that of apes) for comparison which is the Kuma Te.

Impact was measured on the basis of motion transmitted to a punch bag - something that works in favour of centre mass strikes and certainlt not appropriate for more natural fingers forward thrusting strikes to the top of the head.

Interesting work, but rather sloppy in my opinion.