The Violent History Of Our Faces
June 10, 2014

The Violent History Of Our Faces

Have you ever been punched in the face before, and I mean really punched? I am not talking about being hit by accident or being slapped, but a real solid blow with some intent put behind it. Man, does it ever hurt. In a fistfight, the face is always the primary target, and why not? We’ve got some important stuff going on in that whole region of our bodies. It tends to be a sensitive area and one that everyone will give a lot to protect. Given that, I find it amusing to thing that we might owe the structure of our faces, how we look, to our ancient ancestors punching each other in the face.

Biologist David Carrier and physician Michael H. Morgan, both of the University of Utah, believe that the human faces, namely those of our australopith ancestors, may have evolved the way they did in order to minimize injury from punches to the face during fist fights, marking a counter-point to the more commonly held belief that they evolved this way out of a need to chew hard-to-crush foods such as nuts.

According to David Carrier, “The australopiths were characterized 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 effective for striking. If indeed the evolution of our hand proportions were associated with selection for fighting behavior you might expect the primary target, the face, to have undergone evolution to better protect it from injury when punched.”

He goes not to note that, just as I mentioned earlier, when people fight they tend to go for the face. What Carrier and Morgan found in their studies was that the bones that suffer the highest rates of fractures in such fights are the exact same parts of the skull that exhibited the greatest increase in thickness during the evolution of basal hominins. These same bones show the greatest difference between males and females in both australopiths and modern humans. “In other words,” Carter said, “male and female faces are different because the parts of the skull that break in fights are bigger in males.” This evolutionary change also happened to appear in the fossil record at approximately the same time as our ancestors evolved the hand proportions needed in order to form a proper fist. Putting all of that together is how Carrier and Morgan came up with the theory that early hominins may have evolved the way they did in order to protect the face from injury during fistfights between males.

The research here focuses on the evolution of the creatures found in the genus Australophithecus, which are the immediate predecessors of the human genus Homo, which is a very relevant area of study in the scientific community as research continues to look for clues into how and why we evolved the way we did. Asutralopiths are who we would have been four to five million years ago.

As for the look into the possibly violent reason for this particular evolution, Morgan noted, “I think our science is sound and fills some longstanding gaps in the existing theories of why the musculoskeletal structures of our faces developed the way they did. Our research is about peace. We seek to explore, understand, and confront humankind’s violent and aggressive tendencies. Peace begins with ourselves and is ultimately achieved through disciplined self-analysis and an understanding of where we’ve come from as a species. Through our research we hope to look ourselves in the mirror and begin the difficult work of changing ourselves for the better.”

Novel research and a very positive notion. What more could you ask for?

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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