Millions of years ago, violent beatings and fist fights were major influences toward the development of human male faces. This is seen prominently in the bulky features characteristic in Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei, a predecessor to modern humans but not considered an actual ancestor. Fist fighting in particular was reportedly so common place that bones evolved into massive structures, tough enough to withstand beatings from hands that were similarly evolved for the purpose of fighting.
A study published this month in the journal Biological Reviews found that bones in the face of human males – bones which are unmistakably different between males and females – were the ones broken most often from fighting and, significantly, the same bones that have shown the most obvious strengthening. Such bones developed as buttresses against punches and violence in general. The paper from the University of Utah even suggested the reason behind the conflicts: beefed up bones evolved because of fights (and the resultant facial destruction) over females and resources. It conjectured that evolutionary changes were driven by intra-hominin violence.
Prior to publication of the new study, scientists believed that man’s face had not gotten its shape because of violent beatings but, instead, as an adaptation to a diet high in seeds, grass and hard nuts. The new findings, however, conclude that violence was the most likely cause. Interestingly, the study’s authors believe that Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei, also known as nutcracker man, ate a lot of fruit. Australopithecus boisei lived on Earth during its Pleistocene epoch (about 2.1 to 1.1 million years ago) in Eastern Africa.
The study proposes that intense physical competition contained the stipulation that, developmentally, facial fortifications had to be take place. The study refers to this as the “protective buttressing hypothesis.”
A press release said that “a suite of traits” in the various species of the australopith genus 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 effective for striking.”
The authors of the study, evolutionary biologist David Carrier and physician Michael Morgan, connected dots, postulating that if hand proportions were indeed associated with violent fighting behavior then “you might expect the primary target, the face, to have undergone evolution to better protect it from injury when punched.” The genus of australopiths, which came immediately before the human genus, Homo, indeed had a remarkably sturdy facial structure.
Today, when a jaw is broken, a surgeon would likely fix it. Millions of years ago, however, such an injury would have made eating impossible. Starvation and death would have followed. Among the most common injuries in contemporary fist fights are to the structures of the jaw, eye, cheek and nose. These are also the areas that became most protected by the evolutionary changes witnessed in the australopiths.
The study proposes that human violence goes back very far in time. Carrier refers to the French philosopher Rousseau, who insisted that the predecessors to contemporary humans were noble savages. Humans are not intrinsically corrupt, Rousseau said, but were instead the hapless recipients of it, thanks to the imposition of civilization. A number of evolutionary biologists support this idea but, for Carrier and Morgan, our distant past was not at all peaceful. If they are right, violent beatings played a key role in shaping man’s face.
By Gregory Baskin