The battered look: How prehistoric punch-ups shaped how humans look today

New study suggests facial features evolved to protect our ancestors from injury

Bare-knuckle fighting helped to shape the human face which evolution has designed to minimise the damage inflicted by a fast-moving fist, according to a radical new theory about how violence changed the way we looked compared to our ape-like ancestors.

The transition in facial structure from apes to early hominins had previously been explained largely by the need to chew on nuts and other hard foods that needed crushing which led to a robust jaw, large molar teeth, a prominent brow and strong cheek muscles.

However, scientists have devised another plausible explanation based on the need for the face to be buttressed against the impact of flying fists which had become a principal weapon in unarmed combat between competing males.

“We suggest that many of the facial features that characterise early hominins evolved to protect the face from injury during fighting with fists,” said David Carrier and Michael Morgan in a study published in the journal Biological Reviews.

The researchers analysed the facial bone structures of a number of hominins, such as an early human ancestor known as Australopithecus, and compared them to apes and modern man. They found that the parts of the face that changed most were the ones most likely to be damaged in a fist fight.

They also found that these changes in facial anatomy closely coincided with the ability of the early hominins to clench their fists and to use them as swinging clubs in a fight – a key tactical change from the biting and scratching preferred by fighting apes.

The stronger facial bones of the australopiths (second and third rows) appeared at the same time that our ancestors learned to clench their fists, before declining along with upper body strength.

“Compared to apes like chimps and gorillas, early hominins had very robust jaws, with large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles. They also have very stout cheek bones and brow ridges,” said David Carrier of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

“The australopiths were characterised by a suite of traits that may have improved fighting ability, including hand proportions that allow formation of a fist, effectively turning the delicate musculoskeletal system of the hand into a club for striking,” Dr Carrier said.

“If indeed the evolution of our hand proportions were associated with selection for fighting behaviour you might expect the primary target, the face, to have undergone evolution to better protect it from injury when punched,” he said.

With his colleague Mike Morgan, a medical doctor at Utah University, Dr Carrier analysed the facial bones that were most likely to be fractured in fights between modern humans and found that these were the same bones that were most likely to have been changed during human evolution.

“When modern humans fight the face is the primary target. The bones of the face that suffer the highest rates of fracture from fights are the bones that show the greatest increase in robusticity during the evolution of early bipedal apes, the australopiths,” Dr Carrier said.

“These are also the bones that show the greatest difference between women and men in both australopiths and modern humans,” he said.

The gender differences in facial bones supports the view that they evolved to buttress the face against flying fists given that fights between males are more common than those between females.

“In other words, male and female faces are different because the parts of the skull that break in fights are bigger in males,” he said.

“In both apes and humans, males are much more violent than females and most male violence is directed at other males. Because males are the primary target of violence, one would expect more protective buttressing in males and that is what we find,” he added.

The large, thickly enamelled molar teeth of australopiths may have allowed the energy of an upward blow to the jaw, for instance, to be transferred from the lower jaw to the skull, allowing the energy to be absorbed with the help of jaw muscles, the scientists suggested.

“What our research has been showing is that many of the anatomical characters of great apes and our ancestors, the early hominins – such as bipedal posture, the proportions of our hands and the shape of our faces – do in fact improve fighting performance,” Dr Carrier said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border