The first fist

The fist has many uses. It can of course, and regrettably, be used to punch and hurt someone else. A raised and shaken fist can also serve as anything from a threat to an indication of frustration. As a tool a fist can become a makeshift hammer or a “handy” rolling pin in the kitchen. There are many more uses of the fist, some of which we cannot canvas here, which makes it not all that surprising that new research suggests that human hands may have evolved precisely so we could make a fist.

In one experiment researchers had men aged 22 to 50 hit a punching bag as hard as they could using either overhead hammer fists and slaps, side punches and slaps, forward punches, or a push. The punching bag carried instruments to allow measurements of force.

The peak force was the same whether the bag was punched or slapped but because a fist applies that force with 33 per cent of the surface area of the palm and figures or 60 per cent of the palm alone, the actual force per area was 1.7 times greater using a fist than a slap. This means a fist is more likely to cause injury.

In further studies the researchers measured the stiffness of the knuckle joint of the first finger and how force is transferred from the fingers to the thumb. This was done when the hand was held in a normal closed fist and when it was held in a partial fist. The buttressing provided by a closed fist was found to increase the stiffness of knuckle joints by 400 per cent and also double the capacity of the fingers to transmit punching force. Ape hands, despite being dextrous, are not able to make a fist in the same way that human hands do.

Since the capacity to make a fist offers an advantage when striking, it seems that the proportions of human hands may have been selected for in evolutionary terms by the capacity to improve fighting performance.

If you look at our close evolutionary cousins you can see that the long fingers of apes evolved so they could climb trees. Compared to apes however, humans have shorter palms and fingers as well as longer, more powerful, and more flexible thumbs. The usual evolutionary theory has been that once humans were walking upright and had come down out of the trees, the major thing you needed to do with your hands was manipulate things (as opposed to hanging on for dear life). The shape of modern human hands does coincide in the fossil record with this happening around four to five million years ago. So hands evolved that were capable of tool use and even artistic expression.

This study suggests a darker, less noble, factor in the evolution of the human hand.

Could it have been that standing toe to toe survival of the fittest came down to who could make the best fist so they could beat their opponent to a pulp? If you look at apes they are capable of great manual dexterity but none of them can make a fist, so these researchers postulate that it might be that aggression shaped human hands rather than artisanship. It makes sense they say, since gorillas have the hands most close to humans in proportions but it is chimps who have the greater tool-making and dexterity capacities.

It’s not nice to think it, but perhaps the urge to fight one another was a force driving the evolutions of our hands.

The question becomes, do you make a fist or did the fist make you?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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