Muscle activation during maximal effort tasks: evidence of the selective forces that shaped the musculoskeletal system of humans.
The selective forces that played a role in the evolution of the musculoskeletal system of the genus Homo have long been debated and remain poorly understood. In this investigation, we introduce a new approach for testing alternative hypotheses. Our analysis is based on the premise that natural selection can be expected to have resulted in muscles that are large enough to achieve necessary levels of maximum performance in essential behaviors, but not larger. We used surface electromyography in male subjects to identify maximum activation levels in 13 muscles of the back and leg during eight behaviors that have been suggested to have been important to foraging, hunting and fighting performance in early humans. We asked two questions: (1) what behaviors produce maximum activation in each of the investigated muscles and (2) are there specific behaviors that elicit maximum recruitment from all or most of the muscles? We found that in eight of the 13 muscles, the highest activity occurred during maximal effort vertical jumping (i.e. whole-body acceleration). Punching produced the highest median activity in the other five muscles. Together, jumping and punching accounted for 73% of the incidences of maximum activity among all of the muscles and from all of the subjects. Thus, the size of the muscles of the back and leg appear to be more related to the demands of explosive behaviors rather than those of high speed sprinting or sustained endurance running. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that selection on aggressive behavior played an important role in the evolution of the genus Homo.