In vitro strain in human metacarpal bones during striking: testing the pugilism hypothesis of hominin hand evolution.
The hands of hominins (i.e. bipedal apes) are distinguished by skeletal proportions that are known to enhance manual dexterity but also allow the formation of a clenched fist. Because male-male physical competition is important in the mating systems of most species of great apes, including humans, we tested the hypothesis that a clenched fist protects the metacarpal bones from injury by reducing the level of strain during striking. We used cadaver arms to measure in vitro strain in metacarpals during forward strikes with buttressed and unbuttressed fist postures and during side slaps with an open palm. If the protective buttressing hypothesis is correct, the clenched fist posture should substantially reduce strain in the metacarpal bones during striking and therefore reduce the risk of fracture. Recorded strains were significantly higher in strikes in which the hand was secured in unbuttressed and slapping postures than in the fully buttressed posture. Our results suggest that humans can safely strike with 55% more force with a fully buttressed fist than with an unbuttressed fist and with twofold more force with a buttressed fist than with an open-hand slap. Thus, the evolutionary significance of the proportions of the hominin hand may be that these are the proportions that improved manual dexterity while at the same time making it possible for the hand to be used as a club during fighting.