The Biomechanics and Evolution of High-Speed Throwing

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The Biomechanics and Evolution of High-Speed Throwing

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Title: The Biomechanics and Evolution of High-Speed Throwing
Author: Roach, Neil
Citation: Roach, Neil. 2012. The Biomechanics and Evolution of High-Speed Throwing. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Throwing with power and accuracy is a uniquely human behavior and a potentially important mode of early hunting. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, do occasionally throw, although with much less velocity. At some point in our evolutionary history, hominins developed the ability to produce high performance throws. The anatomical changes that enable increased throwing ability are poorly understood and the antiquity of this behavior is unknown. In this thesis, I examine how anatomical shifts in the upper body known to occur during human evolution affect throwing performance. I propose a new biomechanical model for how humans amplify power during high-speed throwing using elastic energy stored and released in the throwing shoulder. I also propose and experimentally test a series of functional hypotheses regarding how four key shifts in upper body anatomy affect throwing performance: increased torso rotational mobility, laterally oriented shoulders, lower humeral torsion, and increased wrist hyperextensability. These hypotheses are tested by collecting 3D body motion data during throws performed by human subjects in whom I varied anatomical parameters using restrictive braces to examine their effects on throwing kinematics. These data are broken down using inverse dynamics analysis into the individual motions, velocities, and forces acting around each joint axis. I compare performance at each joint across experimental conditions to test hypotheses regarding the relationship between skeletal features and throwing performance. I also developed and tested a method for predicting humeral torsion using range of motion data, allowing me to calculate torsion in my subjects and determine its effect on throwing performance. My results strongly support an important role for elastic energy storage in powering humans’ uniquely rapid throwing motion. I also found strong performance effects related to anatomical shifts in the torso, shoulder, and arm. When used to interpret the hominin fossil record, my data suggest high-speed throwing ability arose in a mosaic-like fashion, with all relevant features first present in Homo erectus. What drove the evolution of these anatomical shifts is unknown, but as a result the ability to produce high-speed throws was available for early hunting and likely provided an adaptive advantage in this context.
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