Which modern day athletes look the most like our ancestors? (On how we’re “supposed to move”)

Posted on May 2, 2014


In the paper From athletes to couch potatoes: humans through 6,000 years of farmingthe structure of human bones was analyzed by Alison Macintosh. She looked at our bones starting ~7,300 years ago and ended with current students at the University of Cambridge.

“Using a portable desktop 3D laser surface scanner to scan femora and tibiae, she found that male tibiae became less rigid and that bones in both males and females became less strengthened to loads in one direction more than another, such as front-to-back in walking. These findings all indicate a drop in mobility. In other words, it is likely that the people to whom the skeletons belonged became, over generations, less intensely active and probably covered less distance, or carried out less physically demanding tasks, than those who had lived before them.

“Both sexes exhibited a decline in anteroposterior, or front-to-back, strengthening of the femur and tibia through time, while the ability of male tibiae to resist bending, twisting, and compression declined as well,” said Macintosh.”

Quick translation: Human bones have become weaker / less rigid / less dense in the last ~7,300 years. Why? We’ve become less active and mobile. Mobile in the sense we’ve progressively traveled less by foot.

Application to modernity

I want to say roughly around the year 2000 the whole “interval” craze began. Where the germ for “steady state cardio is bad; interval training is the best; interval training is superior to aerobic exercise” started. Through the 2000s this caught more and more steam; then The Paleo Diet came out and this nonsense took off to another stratosphere.

First, all the declarations above, “steady state cardio is bad; interval training is the best; interval training is superior to aerobic exercise,” are wrong. Lyle McDonald ran a fantastic series six years ago (!) debunking every possible facet of this. The only thing he didn’t cover, and that’s probably because it wasn’t as talked about then, was this whole paleo-exercise dogma. Where the declarations of, “Our ancestors exercised with high intensity intervals, so should you. They ran in fast bursts to hunt prey, then relaxed. They ran away from predators in quick bursts, then they were either dead or relaxed. This is how we’re designed to move.” Due to all the above, trainers will do things like prescribe 30 minutes of intense interval exercise opposed to a more relaxing hour of aerobic exercise.

Second, this whole sheer silliness of trying to figure out what our ancestors did, and then saying we should live that way. People need to stop asking “What were we designed to do?” and start asking “What do we handle best?” You don’t need to discern what our ancestors did to figure out what jives well with current humans. [1] Not to mention the assumption our ancestors from 10,000 years ago are biologically the same as we are now. A fictitious assumption exhaustively covered –with genetic data- in The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human EvolutionA book detailing not only how we’ve changed since agriculture began, but how we’re changing faster than ever.

Third, if you are going to play this “ancestral health” game, you better get it right. And, so far, these groups have gotten just about nothing right.

The evidence is much more in favor of humans, both past and present, having a predisposition for an endurance oriented life.

“…it is likely that the people to whom the skeletons belonged became, over generations, less intensely active and probably covered less distance, or carried out less physically demanding tasks, than those who had lived before them.”

So, agriculture made us move less. That’s not surprising. What type of activity are we doing less though? The quote above mentions less distance, which would translate to walking and running, but there are other activities as well, that, in the absence of, can weaken bones. For example, say our ancestors lifted a bunch of heavy things around, and in the absence of that, our bones weakened.

But there is nothing to suggest humans lifted a bunch of things before agriculture. Macintosh specifically states the direction our bones have weakened is primarily front to back, not compression. Ambulation, not lifting objects.

These ancestral health people never mention how all the hunter gatherers they’re saying we should emulate look lean as hell, with maybe some muscle, but often damn near emaciated by today’s standards. Just do a Google search for “hunter gatherer” and you’ll notice 1) None of them have much muscle and 2) The only ones that do have muscle are drawings. Drawings likely by paleo purporters trying to fit their own narrative. (Eat and live this way and you’ll be jacked.)

Hunter gatherer green cirles

Hunter gatherer red circle

If we lifted anything, it sure wasn’t much and it sure wasn’t often. [2] In fact, you know what a lot of hunter gatherers look like? Humans who run, a lot.

From: http://m.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/2008-olympic-mens-marathon?page=single

Kenyan marathoners. (Kenyans are endowed with some of the thinnest limbs we've come across.) (From: summergames.ap.org)

Kenyan marathoners, who always grow up in Kenya before running in the U.S. (Kenyans are endowed with some of the thinnest limbs we’ve come across. Not good for lifting weight, but great for running.) (From: summergames.ap.org)

Compared to other animals, athletically, traversing long distances terrestrially is about the only thing we excel at. Our sprinting, strength, jumping and swimming ability -none of it stands out. It’s either average or poor. Here is a great chart from Jeff Lewis:

Jeff used this paper to deduce the maximal sprinting speeds of 142 mammals. As you can see, humans are pretty average. However, if we take out the tiny mammals in this sample, primarily the rodents, humans go from average to bottom of the barrel:

Maximum running speed versus body weight over 10 pounds

I think it’s worth taking out the rodents and examining because rodents are not something humans seem to have 1) Hunted or 2) Been hunted by. [3] In fact, anything on that list which would be hunting a human, something probably around the same weight as us or much heavier, is either almost as fast or much faster than we are. We are not out sprinting much, if anything, that would be coming after us.

To my knowledge, there is nothing to suggest we were (or are) able to sprint away from predators. In terms of going after them, physically, the only thing that makes any sense is we could, perhaps, run animals to exhaustion. [4]

What else did that Cambridge study find?

“Macintosh suggests that male mobility among earliest farmers (around 7,300 years ago) was, on average, at a level near that of today’s student cross-country runners. Within just over 3,000 years, average mobility had dropped to the level of those students rated as sedentary, after which the decline slowed.”

We can go even further back. Macintosh cross referenced her research with a paper by Colin Shaw and Jay Stock, Extreme mobility in the Late Pleistocene? Comparing limb biomechanics among fossil Homo, varsity athletes and Holocene foragersMacintosh looked 7300 years back, these guys looked even further back.

Shaw and Stock Bone Values

  • Cross Country runners had values of 51,427 for the tibia and 18,642 for the humerus.
  • If you average the three upper paleolithic groups, you get values of 49,347 for the tibia and 16,772.

Considering we’re comparing bones that are about 26,000 years apart, those are DAMN similar numbers. Even their mass is similar. Runners clocked in at 68.21 kg, the three upper paleo groups at 70.08 kg.

Furthermore, note how the paleo groups had less humeral bone rigidity. Meaning, as best we can tell, these paleolithic groups loaded their arms less than modern day cross country runners. Do I really need to mention cross country runners don’t load their arms much? I’ve been around quite a few long distance runners, you might get some half-assed bench pressing and high rep push ups, but that’s about it.

To all the people doing CrossFit, quick lifting sessions, obsessing over deadlifting, obsessing over sprinting and explosive movements, yelling at people to lift heavy things, telling women cardio is bad, making everyone do interval training…it looks like you’ve been doing it wrong all this time. With your obsession over our ancestors, it seems you’ve denounced the one group who looks the most like them.

Happy long distance running and walking. [5]

[1] Of course, understanding current human physiology is the most complex task we have ever undertaken. Considering how much trouble we have figuring out our contemporary selves, it’s beyond far fetched to think we can effectively play this game with our ancestors.

[2] Look closely the next time you see someone who can really throw. They are almost always someone who doesn’t excel at lifting weights. The joint structure best for throwing is the opposite for what’s best in strength. Long, narrow limbs versus short, thick limbs. If you’re a hunter gatherer, what would you rather: An ability to really throw a spear, or an ability to lift something heavy? (Yes, getting stronger can help you throw harder, but that doesn’t mean you want a joint structure for strength. You want strong limbs which are suited for throwing. This is where baseball coaches who advocate against lifting are missing the boat. It’s not that muscle is bad for throwing; it’s a natural muscled up guy probably isn’t a natural thrower.)

[3] There is this misnomer out there humans, compared to other animals, are terrible sprinters. As the charts illustrate, that really depends on how you quantify things.

[4] Persistence hunting is a contentious topic. What’s much less contentious is the endurance ability of humans, especially in very hot weather. Furthermore, it’s hard to fully disconnect our physical ability from our cognitive. Without a spear, a creation from our brains, persistence hunting (and most hunting) might not be feasible.

[5] Very long distance running and walking. The cross country runners who looked most like the paleo group reported “running up to 80-100 miles per week.”

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