How Human Skulls Evolved To Take A Punch

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The standard explanation for why the skull of hominins – humans, great apes, and their evolutionary ancestors, more or less – changed shape was so that it was better able to chew tough foods such as nuts. But this peaceful view of our evolutionary history is being challenged by University of Utah professors David Carrier and Michael H. Morgan who argue in their paper Protective buttressing of the hominin face, just published in Biological Reviews, that our faces evolved to survive a fist fight.

Human skull: Bone structure changed more in males than females

“When modern humans fight hand-to-hand the face is usually the primary target. What we found was that the bones that suffer the highest rates of fracture in fights are the same parts of the skull that exhibited the greatest increase in robusticity during the evolution of basal hominins,” Carrier said in a statement. “These bones are also the parts of the skull that show the greatest difference between males and females in both australopiths and humans. In other words, male and female faces are different because the parts of the skull that break in fights are bigger in males.”

The unspoken assumption here, of course, is that males were more likely to get into fights than females (or, more specifically, that males were more likely to be struck in the face). While that fits common gender stereotypes, interpreting million year old stereotypes through a specific cultural lens is an easy way to make mistakes, as Carrier believes other researchers have done.

Carrier believes the evolutionary role of violence is underplayed

Carrier and Morgan point out that vulnerable portions of the skull thickened at the same time that hand proportions changed, allowing hominins to make a fist, and that being a glassjaw suddenly became a major disadvantage. Carrier has previously done research on how great ape legs shortened and plans research on changing foot posture during the same period.

He argues that the idea of a noble savage corrupted by civilization affects the way that many archeologists interpret the fossil record, leading them to pacifistic conclusion such as the jaw changing according to diet. By investigating the role of violence in hominid evolution, Carrier wants to answer what he sees as open questions about why our musculoskeletal structure evolved in the way that it did.

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About the Author

Michael Ide
Michael has a Bachelor's Degree in mathematics and physics from Boston University and Master's Degree in physics from University of California, San Diego. He has worked as an editor and writer for several magazines. Prior to his career in journalism, Michael Worked in the Peace Corps teaching math and science in South Africa.

13 Comments on "How Human Skulls Evolved To Take A Punch"

  1. Bad day to be a scientist. Atheistic science continues to leave a black eye on a noble profession. This religion has had a tight grip on the lab coats of scientists for over 150 years. Einstein knew this and rejected them but they claimed him as one of their own anyway. This is just one of many stories that make it harder for real science to be heard.

  2. Highly untrue. Testes are essential for reproduction, but not survival. It’s survival of the fittest, not reproduction of the fittest, in the macro sense. One individual can lose his reproductive abilities and it doesn’t affect the fortune of the species. That’s how natural selection works.

  3. Natural selection acts irrespective of human efforts to insulate ourselves from it. It may simply create situations where the selection tends to work at a greater scope. In metaphorical terms, we end up failing together as we cement the more competitive members of the group to the fate of the less competitive. We cannot ‘opt out’ of selective pressures, we simply change how it is expressed.

    Neither is to argue that our behavior is somehow defective. Altruism has evolved in many species and seems to serve some selective purpose. Whatever the result that retains genes that have dilatory effect may be outweighed by the advantage to the group of having a self-supporting ethos.

  4. enmukeeenmukee | Jun 9, 2014, 2:52 pm at 2:52 pm |

    It is lazy even stupid to attribute a change evolving over millions of years to a single reason.
    The fact is “Human Skulls might have ALSO Evolved To Take A Punch”. There are surely many other reasons like changes in brain size, different kind of food eaten that changed the jaw structure, and numerous others.

  5. I wonder how we are going to evolve now that we’ve taken survival of the fittest out of the equation. Seems we are going to get less intelligent as the higher intelligent people reproduce less.

  6. Your question is just one observation that highlights the unlikelihood of the truth of the claims of these men.

  7. These guys are stupid.

    The reason for skulls changing shape is the same reason for apes turning into smart humans.

    The gradual domination of Yang over Yin in the Apes turns them into humans.

    The gradual domination of Yang over Yin changed the shapes of those skulls.

    I would tell you why but it is complex and I feel lazy.

  8. Are you kidding? Skulls have been armor for brains since prehistoric fish swam in oceans…

  9. It would be more accurate to say that all the humans with skulls shaped badly for taking a punch were killed off.

  10. Or, because nature hasn’t found a better way to keep them cool enough to produce viable sperm cells.

  11. Maybe they have. One of the major draw backs of evolving better protected testicles is that a severe enough injury to the testicles would not allow procreation. Assuming that the damage done was minor enough to allow for offspring, that offspring may have less of a hang than others. Just a thought.

  12. Well, I guess I need to punch someone in the face. Who am I to stand in the way of evolution?
    (joke)

  13. If this is true, why haven’t the testicles evolved to be carried in a more protected manner?

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