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How ancient man held his own

Created date

July 14th, 2014
model of adult Neanderthal in Smithsonian Natural History Museum
model of adult Neanderthal in Smithsonian Natural

Early in his career, anthropologist Peter McAllister stumbled upon a report about a mid-nineteenth-century Australian aboriginal man, a hulking whaler named Thomas Chaseland. Supposedly, Chaseland possessed extraordinary physical capabilities, especially his eyesight, which enabled him to spot whales outside of telescopic range. 

McAllister wondered how this could be true and made it his life’s work to find out why. He spoke with the Tribune about the physical prowess of our ancient forebears.

Tribune: When we talk about ancient man, how far back are we going?

McAllister: By ancient man I mean both men on the evolutionary timescale (going back to our separation from a chimp-like ancestor several million years ago) and men in ancient history—this can mean either people living several thousand years ago in the hunter-gatherer condition or more modern hunter-gatherers. The crucial factor is lifestyle more than time.

Tribune: Is modern man superior to these people?

McAllister: Our conviction that we are superior is partly based on our notions of progress but also a natural ignorance. Because we can’t do certain things, we naturally assume that our ancestors couldn’t either. In fact they often could. 

There is also the issue that as a society we are greatly advanced in things like nutrition and information flow. But individually, we would struggle against people of previous eras.

Tribune: What are the most notable differences between modern and ancient man?

McAllister: This covers a vast range so it’s difficult to generalize. In very early evolutionary times it seems likely that our ancestors, though small, may have been a great deal stronger. Even today, chimps seem to be four times as strong as we are due to the different ways in which their muscles work. 

A little closer to us in evolutionary time, Neanderthals were very powerfully built and some, like homo heidelbergensis, were often much larger. The one general characteristic, however, is that they were tougher. 

In my book Manthropology, I talk about how human bones were about 30% denser until very recent times; but this is mostly not genetic, but developmental. They were stronger because they did much harder work. 

One study, for example, showed that Turkish shepherd children have bones that almost equal those of homo erectus because they have to traverse steep mountains.

Tribune: In what other ways were ancient humans physically superior to us?

McAllister: Their aerobic systems were better. There is an interesting reference in Xenophon to Greek rowers who could perform for long periods of time at intensities unreachable today.

Sometimes, there are also genetic differences. Australian aboriginal people, for example, have very impressive eyesight—around four times as acute as that of Europeans. Some sea-based hunter-gatherers can even see much better underwater than other humans can.

Tribune: I had read about a set of 20,000-year-old footprints discovered in Australia thought to be left by an ancient hunter. From the looks of this footprint, it was ascertained that he was running approximately 23 miles per hour (and still accelerating). Is this true? 

McAllister: Yes, it’s particularly remarkable because he was running on very soft mud, which can cause energy loss in the stride of up to 50%. It is for that reason that I wrote that he could probably have outperformed even Usain Bolt [Jamaican sprinter who ran 200 meters in just over 19 seconds]. 

In another sense, it’s not at all remarkable. You’re talking about men who chased after animals every day and lived a very active lifestyle. That equates to an Olympian training program every day from a very young age. It is no surprise at all that they were superior athletes.

Tribune: Were our ancient predecessors at all mentally superior to us?

McAllister: Well, hunter-gatherer lifestyles required the solution of complex mental problems every day or else you didn’t survive. Aboriginal people in Australia, for instance, seem to have much better spatial memory than Europeans do.

But there are myriad examples closer to us in time of very impressive mental abilities. Slavic bards in the Middle Ages could recite epic poems several hundred thousand words in length. 

Would-be lovers in Filipino Mangyan society had to master an intricate ‘language of love’ called pahágot that was spoken by inhaling rather than exhaling–a very difficult physical and mental art. Again, the crucial ingredient was toughness for survival—if you didn’t master pahágot, you didn’t get to pass on your genes.

Tribune: When and how did these ancient people begin to fade away? 

McAllister: Bone robustness and brain size seem to have suffered a decline starting around 20,000 years ago. The rot really set in, however, with the advent of farming some 7,000 years ago.

Tribune: If they were so strong, why did they vanish? 

McAllister: Strength is not necessarily an asset to survival in modern times. Strong, aggressive men who might have once flourished as warriors these days often end up in prison. 

One theory of human evolution is that the reason for our success was because the weaker of us started ganging up on the stronger, antisocial individuals. As I wrote in the book: the weak have truly inherited the earth...luckily for me.

Peter McAllister is an Australian archaeologist and anthropologist. He is the author of Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male is Not the Man He Used to Be (St. Martin’s Press, 2010).