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One Thing Humans Are Better Than Other Species At: Throwing

The next time you angrily throw something across the room, appreciate that you’re exercising a pretty unique human ability

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The more we learn about animals, the less seems separates them from us. Elephants are brilliant, dolphins are dastardly, apes can do almost anything humans can. But there is at least one thing that does set us apart: our ability to throw stuff.

Jason Goldman at BBC Future tackles the question: Many species can throw, but can they do it as well as human beings? It turns out this question has been lingering in the minds of scientists for a while now. Goldman points to a 1975 paper that argues our ability to throw accurately is something special to humans. The scientists in question asked wild chimpanzees to throw 44 objects at a target. Let’s just say the chimps would have probably been picked last in gym class. 

This shouldn't be too surprising, if you think about it. We’ve all seen someone—whether a baseball player or a beer pong champion—throw an object with impressive precision. But humans are also far better than apes at pole vaulting, skeleton racing and a wide variety of other sports that we’ve invented and practiced. The question really is: if these chimps had a good coach (and a desire to learn this weird human game), could they get as good?

It turns out that human physiology is uniquely adapted for throwing. Goldman writes:

Throwing probably gave our early ancestors a better chance of acquiring a meal, and wouldn't have been possible without various skeletal and anatomical adaptations that allowed for the rotation of the arm and pelvis. But it is also possible that throwing was a communicative gesture, as it seems to be for Japanese macaques. That's perhaps why some have argued that more accurate throwing helped to usher in a host of cognitive advances, including language and music. After all, throwing requires a certain amount of psychological sophistication.

Humans have shorter fingers and hands structured for throwing objectss. That wrist motion that is key to successful dart throwing is also a special human adaptation.

And here’s another fun fact: women and men are equally good at throwing. Goldman writes:

In 2011, Kevin Lorson and colleagues compared overhand throwing among men and women of three different age brackets: adolescent 14-17 year olds, young adults aged 18-25, and older adults aged 35-55. While they reported that some differences in body mechanics between males and females in the two younger groups, those differences vanished by adulthood.

So the next time you angrily throw something across the room, just remember that you’re exercising a pretty unique human ability. 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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