Human evolution is usually described as a sequence of momentous changes or developments to our species. You’ve got the move from knuckle walking and tree dwelling to perpetual bipedalism that occurred a few million years back as perhaps the biggest step toward homo sapiens and away from the lower primates. There’s the big brain, too, as well as the tool making. Language acquisition, art, spirituality, and, yes, agriculture are other major milestones in our journey. These developments punctuated and defined our evolution, and they’ve come to define what it means to be human. What other animals walk upright all day long, manipulate and craft complex machinery, employ an over ten thousand-word verbal vocabulary, and shape the natural world around them?
Well, it’s probably time to augment our evolutionary CVs with yet another bullet point: the development of our unique shoulder joints.
As a recent NPR story highlighted, the human shoulder joint took awhile to arrive on the scene. Our earliest tree-dwelling ancestors had similar shoulders to modern apes, whose shoulder joints angle upwards, allowing effortless hanging from branches. Once we descended and began walking upright, the joint began descending, too, and growing more horizontal. The collarbone lengthened to allow our arms to hang freely and manipulate objects (build tools, perchance) in front of us. Using our shoulder joints, we could move our arms in nearly any direction, even behind our backs. This freedom to whip our arms around through a full range of motion gave us the ability to throw objects with astounding accuracy and lethal velocity. Even our flickable wrists (think a basketball shot) and powerful hips and glutes (not just good for running, after all) augmented our throwing abilities.
Pound for pound, the Paleolithic human was no physical match for the big game he was pursuing or the predators with whom he was competing, but the ability to throw finely-crafted projectile objects, like spears, javelins, or darts, gave him a serious edge. Throwing turned our lithe, lean, relatively physically unimpressive ancestors into productive hunters. This wasn’t the poop flinging chimpanzee spazzing out in a cage; this was a long-range killer taking fauna out at fifty yards, or, to use a more contemporary example, the big league pitcher throwing a perfect game.
I think it’s pretty clear how important throwing was to human evolution. It allowed us to really focus on the acquisition of live prey, rather than rely on small animals and left over carcasses. It kept us at a distance and away from close contact with physically imposing animals, where the odds were not in our favor. It gave us more access to larger amounts of energy intensive meat, allowing our stomachs to shrink to make way for bigger brains. But the question remains: how do we incorporate throwing into fitness? It’s clearly an essential movement, perhaps even a uniquely human one.
Just remember that throwing isn’t just about the arms and the shoulders. Much of the power is generated through the hips (like throwing a punch, sorta) and the flicking of the wrist helps with accuracy. As such, proper throwing shouldn’t just get you a sore rotator cuff. It should work your core, your posterior chain, and your upper body. And heavier objects require more muscle involvement, obviously. Don’t throw a twenty-pound rock like a baseball (or a javelin).
Throwing definitely has a place in fitness. I think of fitness as one’s ability to interact with and traverse the environment – climbing obstacles, moving obstacles, lifting obstacles, dragging objects, throwing objects (at other objects). It’s not just raw strength or speed; it’s also agility, balance, and throwing accuracy. You may not have to pin a hare at 30 yards for dinner anymore, but it’s important to use what evolution gave you. Don’t let grandfather Grok down, now. Show him you can throw half as well as he could.