If you really want to see the trouble modern men are in, just drop in on an action figure (definitely not action doll) convention such as, say, “JoeCon 25”—the 2007 gathering for collectors of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. The pointers aren’t so much in the audience—those grinning Gen-Xers from across the country who bought the “American Hero” registration package and have now packed into the Atlanta Marriott atrium to await the forty-seven-floor parachute drop of three hundred eight-inch Cobra Red Ninja figurines. The trouble lies with Joe himself.
A series of scientific papers at the turn of the millennium unearthed a disturbing fact about G.I. Joe: he’s growing steadily, absurdly hypermuscular. The modern G.I. Joe “Sgt. Savage Extreme” figure, for example, is three times as muscular as his 1982 counterpart. The trend is particularly striking when “Sgt. Savage” is compared to real, living males. The average modern man has a biceps circumference of about eleven-and-a-half inches. If the 1982 “Sgt. Savage” had been scaled up to a living man’s height his biceps circumference would have more or less equaled this, at just over twelve-and-a-half inches. The biceps of “Sgt. Savage Extreme” in 1998, however, would have ballooned to almost forty inches if he had been likewise supersized. Not even steroid abusing bodybuilders ever get this big: the largest biceps in the modern world belong to bodybuilder Greg Valentino, who ’roided his up to a grotesque, but comparatively meager, twenty-eight inches. Even such not-so-hyper-masculine figurines as Luke Skywalker and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers now equal this. Mattel’s Ken—to quote one final, humiliating example—has not escaped unpumped either. Barbie’s inoffensive arm candy now sports a chest circumference attainable by just one in fifty real men.
G.I. Joe’s bulging biceps are a testament in ABS plastic to our accelerating obsession with male muscularity, and he’s not alone. Another scientific paper found that the nude male centerfolds of Playgirl magazine have gained an average 26.4 pounds of muscle over the past quarter-century, and lost 12 pounds of fat.1 A survey of American male university students found that most wanted to emulate these magazine man-muffins, stating a preference for 24 pounds more muscle and 7.5 pounds less body fat than they actually had.
All across the Western world men are packing into gyms, pumping iron, and swallowing ever greater quantities of legal and illegal supplements in the quest for buffed, bulked physiques. The number of weight-training gyms has ballooned and legal muscle-building supplements are now a $1.6 billion per year industry. Illegal steroid use is rife, too, with 70 percent of bodybuilders, and 12 percent of American high school boys, admitting to taking them. This has led to a predictably dramatic explosion in male musculature: one scientific paper found that Mr. America winners from the pre-steroid era averaged a fat-free muscle mass (total body weight minus fat, bones, and connective tissue) of 158 pounds, while bodybuilders in the post-steroid era average 176 pounds. (This doesn’t sound like much, but an extra eighteen pounds of pure muscle is a big increase.)2 Even this, however, doesn’t seem to satisfy us. A recent article in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry estimated that a million American men now suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder—a syndrome whose major symptom is the obsessive desire for a more muscular body.3 Even women are not immune: several surveys of American university women found that the majority of them secretly wished their boyfriends were more muscular.
Rock of Ages
The ground shook figuratively, as well as literally, when Iranian weightlifter, Hossein Rezazadeh, slammed down the 580-pound barbell after winning gold in the clean-and-jerk event at the 2004 Olympics. Not only was it an Olympic record, Rezazadeh also won, by popular acclaim, the title of “Strongest Man in the World.” A little history, however, shows the title to be too late—twenty-six hundred years too late, to be precise.
Nineteenth-century archaeological excavations on the Greek island of Thera uncovered a 1,058-pound boulder, dated to the sixth century BCE, bearing the inscription “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” This is classified as a deadlift, in which event Rezazadeh has recorded a lift of 836 pounds (the world-record deadlift, 1,006.5 pounds, is held by powerlifter Andy Bolton). True, Eumastas probably didn’t lift the boulder up to groin height, as modern deadlifters do, but weightlifting historian, David Willoughby, points out that the difficult grip of a boulder, compared to the ease of a barbell, renders the feat probably unattainable by almost any modern weightlifter.4
Nor is that the only superior ancient weightlifting feat. Another sixth century BCE boulder, this time a 315-pound stone found at Olympia, bears an inscription to the effect that an athlete called Bybon lifted it overhead, one-handed, and threw it. No modern weightlifter has been able to even lift this weight overhead one-handed since the German strongman, Arthur Saxon, in the late nineteenth century—and not even Saxon managed to throw it.
But if we modern Hercules so easily outmuscle the men of fifty years ago, how might we fare against males of the truly distant past: those ancestral members of our genus Homo, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, who have populated the world at various times over the past 2 to 3 million years? As a paleoanthropologist, that was my burning interest, so I decided to test it. Since the focus of our current obsession with muscularity seems to be on the arms (one paper found that almost 75 percent of tenth and twelfth grade American schoolboys specifically desire bigger biceps5), I decided to compare upper arm strength between modern and ancient humans. In the interest of a fair fight, I decided to have them slug it out in the one modern sport in which arm muscles are undeniably king: world championship arm wrestling.
Competitive arm wrestling is a surprisingly popular sport these days. In the pantheon of modern strongman events—such as truck pulling, refrigerator carrying, and car wheelbarrowing—arm wrestling has been near the pinnacle ever since Sly Stallone’s 1987 movie Over the Top showed a down-at-heel trucker, Lincoln Hawk, arm-wrestle his way into his son’s heart and win the world championship along the way. The World Arm Wrestling Federation boasts 85 member countries and hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic participants in events such as “Arm Wars X” and the annual “Riverboat Rumble.” The big names, however, are the winners of the world championships—men such as Travis Bagent, premier left-arm wrestler in the world, and multiple world championship winner, John Brenzk (who actually wrestled in Stallone’s movie). To represent Homo masculinus modernus in this matchup, however, I’ve chosen one of the biggest, strongest men to ever bend the arm in professional combat: 2004 World Arm Wrestling Federation champion, Alexey Voyevoda. At 255 pounds with a 22-inch bicep (10 percent bigger again than those of Arnold Schwarzenegger at his peak), Voyevoda is the man to give Homo masculinus modernus his best shot at claiming the title in this interspecies grudge match. We’re going to need him, too, because for Voyevoda’s opponent I’ve chosen the toughest, most muscular species of ancient human to ever walk the earth.
The Neandertals were a type of human (or hominin, as all such member species of our genus Homo are called) who flourished in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia between three hundred and fifty thousand and twenty thousand years ago. Homo neanderthalensis males and females were comparable to us in brain size (in fact, some Neandertal brains were much larger), but their bodies were far more muscular. Neandertal males, for example, though they averaged a mere 55 in height (around four inches smaller than modern male Homo sapiens) are thought to have carried 20 percent more muscle than modern men. One possible reason is their cold environment—a thermoregulatory principle known as Bergmann’s law predicts that people who live in arctic environments, such as modern Inuits, or Eskimos, will have greater mass and more spherical body shapes to reduce surface area and retain heat. Another possibility, however, is that hypermusculature was an adaptation to the violent lives Neandertals lived. Thirty percent of all male Neandertal skeletons found, for example, have traumatic head and neck injuries, a level reached only by rodeo riders among modern populations. It’s probable the Neandertal men received their injuries from the same source the riders did—close encounters with enraged bulls and beasts—since the archaeological evidence shows, incredibly, that they hunted prey as big as woolly rhinos by ambushing them up close with thrusting spears.
So muscular, in fact, were the Neandertals that I began to take pity on poor Alexey Voyevoda. Anxious to give this champion of Homo masculinus modernus a fighting chance, I stacked the deck slightly in his favor: I decided that instead of having Voyevoda square up to a hulking, rhino-hunting Neandertal male, I would send him into battle against a girl. A sweet, demure, coquettish Neandertal girl—the five foot, 176-pound beauty with the unfortunate name of La Ferrassie 2 (taken from the French cave site, La Ferrassie, where she was discovered with several other buried Neandertals in 1909).
Comparing their biceps strength was difficult, but not impossible. (It does involve a little calculation, unfortunately, so if that bores you just skip ahead four or five paragraphs.) The force a biceps muscle produces per square inch of cross-sectional area (called CSA and measured perpendicularly across the muscle) is known—it is 62 pounds. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to vary between men and women, though obviously the total area of their muscle does. Measurements of Alexey Voyevoda’s total biceps CSA are, unfortunately, not available, but the average for a comparable group of modern males, elite bodybuilders, comes in at approximately 3.5 square inches. Multiplied by 62 pounds per square inch, that gives a hypothetical force of roughly 220 pounds for Voyevoda’s biceps. But how, then, to estimate the CSA of La Ferrassie 2’s biceps, given that all that survives of her arm is bone?
Surprisingly, it can be done thanks to a rule known as Wolff’s law. Wolff’s law, named after German military surgeon Julius Wolff, states that bone carries a record of the muscular load placed upon it because it grows larger over time in response to mechanical stress. In crude terms, the size of the muscle can therefore be estimated from the cortical area, or CA (a cross-sectional measure of thickness similar to muscle CSA), of the bone it was attached to. Since we have measures of bone CA for both La Ferrassie 2 and a representative group of average (non-bodybuilding) modern males, all I had to do was calculate the ratio between the two and multiply it by the average, non-bodybuilding male’s biceps CSA (1.8 inches square).
That, however, was where the first surprise hit me.
Despite the fact that modern males have 50 percent more upper body muscle than modern females, La Ferrassie 2 had bigger biceps than any average man alive today. The CA of her upper arm bone, or humerus, was 0.34 square inches, compared to our puny 0.3 square inches. Her biceps CSA was therefore probably around 2 inches square, around 16 percent larger than our 1.8 square inches. Multiplied by 62 pounds, that gave La Ferrassie 2 a hypothetical biceps force of around 124 pounds. Now, while this was enough to slam the average male pub challenger (with 112 pounds) to the table, it was a long way short of Voyevoda’s 220 pounds. I had not yet, however, corrected for the effect of training—one couldn’t be so unchivalrous, after all, as to let La Ferrassie 2 wrestle without a prolonged weight-training program to mirror Voyevoda’s. Several studies of elite female bodybuilders have shown that women’s muscles can grow, or hypertrophize, by approximately 31 percent in response to prolonged strength training. An increase of this size would bring La Ferrassie 2’s biceps CSA up to 2.6 inches square and her force output to around 162 pounds. Impressive as this is, it’s still just 75 percent of Voyevoda’s biceps output. At this point, it seemed, the Russian champion would have been counting his prize money and basking in the gratitude of vindicated modern males everywhere.
Except that La Ferrassie 2 had a nasty little surprise in store—two in fact. One was a trick of leverage and the other a quirk of Neandertal muscle anatomy. Put together they would have left Voyevoda regretting he’d ever been so stupid as to take her on.
It is widely acknowledged, among arm-wrestling champions, that a short forearm is a serious advantage. This is because the forearm is a third-class lever. Levers generally increase the amount of work that can be done as they grow longer, but third-class levers don’t—they decrease it. This is called the lever’s “mechanical disadvantage,” and its number rises as the lever lengthens. A short forearm, therefore, means a lower mechanical disadvantage. (The Neandertals had such short wrists because of another thermoregulatory principle, Allen’s law, which states that organisms living in cold environments will have dramatically shortened arms and legs, again to reduce heat loss.) My calculations show that Voyevoda’s forearm would probably have a mechanical disadvantage of 6.145, while La Ferrassie 2’s would be lower—around 5. If you divide each contestant’s absolute force by their mechanical disadvantage, it turns out that the amount of power La Ferrassie 2 delivered at her hand (the end of the forearm lever) would be just short of Voyevoda’s—roughly 33 pounds compared to 36.
By now the sweat beading the burly Russian’s forehead would no doubt be as much from relief at his close escape as from effort. But La Ferrassie 2 had a final, cruel anatomical trick to play. In Neandertal forearms, both male and female, the point where the biceps muscle was attached was located much further around on the radius bone than in modern humans, making Neandertals immensely strong in supination, or rotating the wrist counterclockwise, since full biceps contraction could be maintained through the whole movement. They likewise possessed much more highly developed muscles attaching to the other forearm bone, the ulna, giving them great strength, too, in clockwise rotation or pronation. These two features would have made La Ferrassie 2 an unbeatable dominatrix at two winning techniques in arm wrestling: the hook, where the wrist is supinated to get inside the opponent’s arm, and the top roll, where the wrist is pronated to get over the opponent’s wrists and bend his fingers back.
Once La Ferrassie 2 got her 10 percent bigger brain around those little numbers, Voyevoda’s pathetic 7 percent advantage would disappear in the snap of an upper-arm bone (fractured humeri are surprisingly common among arm wrestlers; see below). Of course, the beaten Russian could always cry foul, adding the title of “sorest loser” to the bulging trophy case of modern male failures. But the prospect of La Ferrassie 1—a fully grown male Neandertal bulging with 50 percent more upper body muscle than La Ferrassie 2—wading in to restore her honor, would probably dissuade him.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an arm
Though popular, arm wrestling can be dangerous. One study from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Keio University Medical School in Tokyo, for example, reported forty cases of broken arms from arm wrestling over a period of twenty years.6 The injuries were invariably the same: a spiral fracture from twisting of the humerus (the upper-arm bone).
Surprisingly, the majority of injuries occurred in men who fought weaker or evenly matched opponents, rather than stronger ones. Alcohol, predictably, was a factor, but so was inexperience: 60 percent of victims had never arm wrestled before the bout (usually against a friend) in which they were injured.
Doctors concluded that the injuries came from inexperienced wrestlers trying to push their hand, arm, and shoulder in the same direction—a natural, throwing motion. The drawback is that this simply added to the torque, or twist, that the opponent was putting on their upper arms. This overloaded their rotator muscles, prompting a sudden switch from concentric contraction (in which muscle fibers shorten to provide resistance) to eccentric contraction (where they elongate and add to the opposing force).
This phenomenon probably explained why the “Arm Spirit” arm wrestling arcade game had to be withdrawn in Japan after three players broke their arms on it. The bone-breaking game should have been a pushover—contestants progressively wrestled a French maid, a drunken martial arts master, and a chihuahua!
In any case, Voyevoda’s performance in this interspecies grudge match might actually have been even worse. These calculations all assumed that the individual muscles of ancient hominins were exactly the same strength, pound for pound, as those of modern humans. There is considerable evidence, however, that they may have been much, much stronger. Most of it comes from anatomical studies of our very close relative, the chimpanzee. The two species of chimpanzee—Pan troglodytes, the common chimp, and Pan paniscus, the bonobo or pygmy chimp—are not our immediate ancestors, but they are direct descendants of whoever was. It is highly probable, therefore, that early human males at the time of our separation from chimps (about 5.5 million years ago) were exactly as strong as male chimpanzees are today.
So how strong is that?
Exceptionally strong, as it happens. Scientists who work with chimps often remark on the animals’ phenomenal physical strength. Jane Goodall, for example, told a Canadian TV host that she frequently saw chimps manipulate branches six times heavier than a man could. Given the savage attack suffered by the unfortunate Charla Nash, a Connecticut woman whose face and hands were almost ripped off by her friend’s pet chimpanzee, Travis, in early 2009, this seems more than plausible. Much scientific data also testifies to chimps’ incredible strength. A study of bonobos, the smallest chimpanzees, found they could jump, from a standing start, almost three times the height an average man could, and almost twice as high as any elite high-jump competitor despite the fact that their leg-muscle mass is just one-third that of humans.7
Why are chimps so phenomenally strong? Muscle bulk does seem to be part of the answer. Despite the fact that chimps’ overall muscle mass is lower, the level of it relative to their reduced body size is quite high. One study of dead chimps from English zoos found that every one of their muscle groups (except the quadriceps) was significantly larger than those of humans when scaled for limb length; their biceps were almost twice as large. But sheer muscle bulk can’t be the whole answer. For, as a fascinating 1926 experiment showed, common chimpanzees, even female ones, really are over four times as strong as human males, weight-for-weight.
There is a delicious irony about John Bauman’s early twentieth-century chimp strength tests at Muhlenberg College, a small Pennsylvanian university. The researcher tested his three chimps using a dynamometer: a lever connected to a two-thousand-pound-capacity steel loop spring and a dial to register the maximum pulling force. The machine had been provided by the Narragansett Machine Company to Muhlenberg (a Lutheran college) for the purposes of anthropometry—recording the physical strength of male students—a craze that swept American universities in the late nineteenth century as part of the “muscular Christianity” movement. Instead of aiding the development of the perfectly masculine Christian man, however, Muhlenberg’s machine would, in Bauman’s hands, prove just how feeble that man really was.
Bauman used the dynamometer to test the pulling power of three “anthropoid apes…of suitably vicious disposition” against that of five “husky farm lads” attending the college. To his astonishment, the chimps dramatically out-pulled the men, without really trying.8 Suzette, a female circus chimp who’d been donated to the New York Zoological Park on account of her “increasing treacherousness and meanness,” made a random pull of 1,258 pounds—four times the college students’ average. (Interestingly, the only student who, at 127 pounds, weighed less than Suzette, pulled the highest human total: 460 pounds.) Bauman’s male chimp, Boma, made a single-hand pull of 847 pounds, again over four times the strength of the male students’ single-hand pulls. Bauman drew two conclusions from these results. First, that the individual fibers in chimp muscle must be roughly four times the strength of human fibers. (In fact, later research has shown that chimp muscle fibers are not individually stronger than ours; instead they are recruited en masse in one explosive contraction, in contrast to our more staggered firing. It is this that gives chimps their super strength.) Second, that this strength must be genetic and inherent, rather than conditioned. Bauman pointed out that his farm lads were fresh from a season of strenuous farm labor, while the chimps had been idling their years away in tiny cages.9
Here Bauman had stumbled onto a theory that would later become important in evolutionary explanations of human origins: that Homo sapiens is simply a kind of degenerate ape. Several lines of evidence support this idea. Some of the genetic mutations that differentiate us from the chimp and our common ancestor seem to involve a simple loss of function—put simply, our version just doesn’t work anymore. Then there are our visible differences in body form, or phenotype. Though we have roughly as many hair follicles as chimps, our hairs (except on our heads) are pathetic remnants by comparison. Our kids grow more slowly than chimp children do: so slowly, in fact, that the chimpanzees adult humans most resemble are the juveniles, leading some anthropologists to label us “neotenous” organisms—ones that become adult in their juvenile stage. We are, effectively, a bald chimp that never grows up. A bald, weak, chimp, according to Bauman.
Paleoanthropologists have long wondered how our earliest ancestors defended themselves on the harsh African savannah, home to such nasty predators as leopards, hyenas, and lions. Early humans lost their large canines as soon as they left the trees, and effective spears didn’t become available for 2 million years. So how did they fend off ravening carnivores?
Remarkably, they might have punched them senseless.
We humans are natural-born boxers. Like our chimp cousins, we were originally brachiating (or branch-swinging) apes, with shoulder joints adapted to an almost 360-degree range of motion. When we shifted to bipedalism, however, this meant we also suddenly acquired the ability to throw vicious jabs, hooks, and sweeping haymakers.
Chimps still use these to devastating effect today. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham describes witnessing a male chimp, Hugo, punch out a male baboon, Stumptail, that had canines as long as a lion’s:
As Hugo approached, Stumptail reared [and] bared his fangs…but before he could close to biting range, Hugo swung his arm in a wide arc and punched Stumptail in the belly. Stumptail crumpled…looking sick. Moving like a prizefighter, Hugo quickly landed a second punch…snapping the baboon’s head backwards. That was it. Stumptail retreated…and Hugo, taking his place among the delicious palm fruits, ate for a peaceful half-hour.10
So much for Stumptail, but could our tiny ancestors (they averaged between 3 and 4 feet tall) really have punched out leopards and hyenas? Well, maybe. Consider, for example, the Homo sapiens boxer, Rocky Marciano. Engineers tested Marciano’s punch in the 1950s, reporting that it generated enough force to lift an 1,100-pound weight 12 inches off the ground, break facial bones, and smash its victim into instant unconsciousness. Now consider the fact that our earliest ancestors were probably, like their chimp brothers, about four times as strong as Marciano. Put this way, a punch from early Homo pugilistus could have knocked any 110-pound spotted hyena out of the ring…and then some.
But why should such degeneration have proven so successful, evolutionarily speaking? Surely natural selection should have weeded out ninety-eight-pound weaklings like us long ago? Evidence from a 2004 study on another human muscle, the jaw, may tell us why it didn’t. That study, by the Pennsylvania School of Medicine Muscle Institute, found that the fast-twitch fibers in human jaw muscles are now just one-eighth the size of their chimp counterparts, thanks to a mutation in the genes encoding for the myosin protein that provides muscle-fiber bulk. It’s the same condition that expresses itself in bodily muscles as Inclusion Body Myopathy-3 (IBM3), a wasting disease, and means our jaws generate just a fraction of the bite force that chimp jaws do. But this loss of function may, paradoxically, have been indispensable to the enlargement of our brains. It may have reduced the need for a thick, low braincase with a heavy, bony crest—such as chimps have, to which their powerful jaw muscles attach—thereby freeing the skull up for the first round of hominin brain expansion, which in fact took place shortly after this jaw weakening mutation appeared around 2.4 million years ago. It’s possible our loss of general body strength carried similar benefits, such as trading off strength in our muscles for fine motor control—useful for such things as making tools and throwing stones and spears.11
It’s hard to see, though, what benefits came with our next trophy in the masculine Hall of Shame, for, as it turns out, we’re not only weaker than just about any male human who ever walked the earth, we’re also slower.
The evidence this time is written into the earth itself. In 2003 archaeologists from Bond University discovered a series of human footprint trackways preserved in a fossilized claypan lake bed in the Willandra Lakes region of New South Wales, Australia. The twenty-three trackways date back twenty thousand years and feature almost seven hundred individual footprints. The most interesting are those of six adult men, probably hunters, who seem to have been running to outflank a prey animal. An analysis of the men’s speed (calculated from their stride length) shows that all were running fast, but that the outside individual, the 6'5" “T8,” was achieving incredible speeds. The record of his athleticism, written into the dried hardpan of an Ice Age Australian lake bed, raises serious doubts that any modern sprinter can honorably claim the title “Fastest Man on Earth.”
Take Usain Bolt, currently the world’s fastest man. Bolt set the 100-meter world record of 9.69 seconds at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. His top speed, measured at peak acceleration near the 60-to 70-meter mark, is approximately 27 miles per hour. He achieved it by running at maximum effort on a prepared track with the aid of spiked shoes and strict training backed by decades of scientific research into how to crank the maximum speed from the human body. He is also an elite competitor selected from a pool of many millions of men alive today, and has the lure of glory and a lucrative career to drive him.
T8, on the other hand, was sprinting barefoot through a shallow, soft, muddy lake edge, with nothing but a possible meal of kangaroo or waterbird to spur him on, and he still managed to clock 23 miles per hour. Since the energy cost of running through mud or sand is 1 to 2 times that of running on a solid surface (let alone a rubberized track) this implies T8’s real speed was around 27.6 mph. Given that this may not have been his top speed (his lengthening strides show he was accelerating) and that he was just one of possibly 150,000 Aboriginal men alive at that time (and probably not even the fastest), it seems likely there were many prehistoric Australian males who could, if they trained, have regularly clocked 28 miles per hour and taken out every Olympic sprint in which they competed.
How was T8 able to run so fast? Australian Aboriginal men and women have many enviable sporting achievements today, but nothing to equal this. It is tempting, given how far back in the distant past T8 and his comrades lived, to put it down to genetics, like the superior strength of the Neandertals. But T8 was essentially the same feeble species of man as today’s Homo sapiens. Besides, he was not the only incredibly high ancient achiever. Fast forward seventeen thousand five hundred years, and slip across to the Mediterranean, and you’ll find another group of super-athletic males whose achievements confound science to this day—ancient Greek trireme rowers.
Greek triremes were 132-foot wooden warships driven by the oars of 170 rowers arranged vertically on three decks. Thucydides, the famous Greek historian, records that in 427 BCE the Athenian Assembly hot-headedly ordered that the men of Mytilene, a colony 211 miles away on the Aegean island of Lesbos, should be put to death, and dispatched a trireme with the command. The next day they repented, sending another trireme to rescind it. The first trireme had a whole day-and-a-half start, but Thucydides records that, by rowing for 24 hours straight, the second ship caught up with the first and canceled the murderous order. Even allowing for exaggeration on Thucydides’ part, this puts the second trireme’s sustained speed in excess of 7.5 miles per hour, or almost 7 knots. This is an impressive pace, but one that was, according to other Greek writers, commonly maintained by even mediocre trireme crews. Such statements have caused many a modern historian to wonder—could today’s oarsmen achieve such speeds? Thanks to a British exercise physiologist, the Greek navy, and a dash of Olympic nostalgia, we now know the answer.
As part of the opening ceremony for the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Olympic flame was towed into the Athenian port of Piraeus by a trireme named Olympias, which was reconstructed by the Greek navy in 1987 from pictures of triremes on ancient lamps and paintings. Harry Rossiter, an exercise physiologist from Leeds University and a racing oarsman himself, took the opportunity to test the endurance of trained modern rowers in a real-life trireme. The results were dismal. Rossiter reported that the modern rowers could, after several months of training, get Olympias up to nine knots for a brief spurt; but they couldn’t maintain that speed, or even just seven knots, for any sustained period. Rossiter measured the rowers’ metabolic rates and discovered the reason: the modern crew just wasn’t physically capable of the sustained aerobic effort required.
“The Athenian oarsmen’s endurance was extraordinary,” said Rossiter’s coresearcher, historian Boris Rankov. “In that respect, compared to anybody you could find today they were super athletes.”12
What makes the ancient Greek rowers’ achievements even more remarkable is that they were small men. Champion rowers today average 6'3", giving them a reach advantage with the oars, but ancient Athenian males averaged a mere 5'6". Remarkable, too, is the fact that Athens seemed to have so many of these superb athletes, at one stage fielding a thirty-four-thousand-strong army of rowers for the city’s two-hundred-trireme fleet. The rowers were apparently paid and fed well, but their diet was nothing special, consisting of simple barley meal kneaded with olive oil and wine. So why then are modern rowers so weak by comparison?
Part of the answer seems to lie in training. Elite rowers training for the Olympics today row about one hundred miles a week, which corresponds to between twelve and fourteen hours at the oars. But Thucydides makes it clear that trireme rowers often went on training voyages that lasted for days. Races were also held to keep them at peak fitness. (The Romans, who also used oared triremes, even made their crews practice rowing on land, according to the Greek historian Polybius.) This can’t be the whole story, however. Modern studies have found that increasing aerobic endurance training generally only raises performance in already-trained athletes by around 4 percent. Was the secret behind the incredible aerobic capacity of the trireme rowers, then, also genetic? Again, this is an appealing explanation, but one difficult to believe given that just three thousand years separates the heroic Athenians from their sluggish modern counterparts. Evolutionary change, via natural selection, generally works on much longer timescales than that. The answer probably lies more in our modern-day bone idleness. To find it we need to actually look at those bones, for it is there that the full story of our feeble sloth is written.
Studies comparing our bones to those of fossil humans reveal that we have lost about 40 percent of our bone mass and strength over the past 2 million years. This, too, could be chalked up to genetic causes, except for one telltale sign: the articular heads of our bones (the bulbous ends that form joints such as the knee, hip, and elbow), whose growth definitely is genetically controlled, are still almost exactly the same size as those of Homo erectus, who lived from approximately 2,000,000 BCE to 1,000,000 BCE. Our loss of bone mass has mostly been from the shafts of our long bones—the femur, humerus, tibia, fibula, radius, and ulna—the components known to be those most responsive to Wolff’s law. The cause is the declining levels of muscular load placed on them over the past 2 million years. Proof of this can be seen in modern athletes’ bones, which grow thicker in response to repeated muscular stress. Some modern tennis players, for example, display a cortical thickness in their upper-arm bones almost equal to that of Homo erectus.13
This then is the real secret of the Ice Age Australian runners and the Athenian trireme rowers: their incredible athleticism was not genetic, but ontogenetic. Ontogeny is the process by which an organism grows by interaction with its environment. While genes might fix the limits of its potential development, whether or not it reaches them is governed by the environmental stresses placed upon it. Effectively, therefore, those historic and prehistoric men were superb athletes because of the working toughness they had developed over harsh and demanding lives. Not only was the Athenian trireme rowers’ training drastically tougher than that of modern oarsmen, their work as shepherds and farmers formed a grueling, lifelong program of bone, muscle, and tendon toughening. Ice Age Australian runners, similarly, probably trekked and ran substantial distances daily. (Studies of a comparable hunting population, the Kalahari Desert Kung, have found that male Kung hunters run an average of 18.6 miles on every antelope hunt.) Importantly, both groups probably also began this constant exercise from a very early age, a crucial help in developing bodily toughness. Those scientific studies documenting bone thickening in modern tennis players, for example, found that the greatest expansion took place between the ages of eight and fourteen.
Examples of how much working toughness historical men had compared to Homo masculinus modernus are available even closer to home. Laborers in the rip-roaring early days of the Industrial Revolution, for example, often performed feats unthinkable today. One New Scientist correspondent reported that bridge builders in the mid-nineteenth century toiled all day with forty-pound sledge-hammers; today’s hammers weigh fourteen pounds. English railway navvies in the 1850s were expected to shovel, by hand, twenty tons of earth daily. In the Sheffield steel mills men chained themselves in gangs of forty to drag glowing iron plates weighing twenty-five to thirty-five tons from the furnace to the “Demon Hammers” for stamping, draping themselves in wet sacking to survive the hellish heat. Remarkably, these super-strong working men were also much smaller—at an average 56 around four inches shorter—than their weakling modern counterparts, who, as we have seen, now average 510 in height.
Again, an early start to a tough working life seems to have made the difference. Young boys employed as runners in British glass-works apparently ran between 13 and 17 miles a day, ferrying blown bottles to drying rooms. Lads with the unenviable job of “pusher-out” in a brickworks (dragging cartloads of bricks from the moulder’s table to the kiln) were thought to shift between 12 and 25 tons a day. While such abuses, thankfully, went the way of witch burnings after the Earl of Shaftesbury’s report showed a revolted British public that naked five-year-olds were pulling carts like beasts in deep and deadly coal mines, it is worth noting that such grueling work isn’t always as crippling as we assume. Porters in the Nepalese mountains—another group of small men at an average 411 and 110 pounds—routinely transport punishing loads of 200 pounds (almost twice their body weight) up to 60 miles, on foot, along steep mountain trails. They, too, start at an early age (usually twelve) but seem able to keep working well into their seventies without noticeable degeneration in either spine or joints. Chinese cycle hauliers, similarly, crisscross Beijing daily with loads in excess of 1,100 pounds, and seem able to keep it up without ill effect into late middle age.
Perhaps the most striking examples of working toughness in action are the careers of the old-time strongmen. The circus and sideshow performers of the strongman golden age (mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century) are often ridiculed as leopard-skinned lard tubs with a nice line in facial hair and fakery, and little else besides. Their failure to reach the impressive records of modern weightlifters, such as the 580-pound clean-and-jerk of Iranian super-heavyweight Hossein Rezazadeh at the 2004 Olympics, is held to be evidence of their lack of real super strength. Yet this does these remarkable characters an injustice. In fact, much of the increase in weights lifted today is due simply to improved technique and standardization of events. Old-time strongmen dabbled in a crazy variety of feats beyond the two basic lifts of Olympic weightlifting—neck lifting, back lifting, chain breaking, card tearing, and coin and horseshoe breaking, to mention a few. Actually, the real evidence shows that some of the historical strongmen were just that: very strong indeed.
Louis Uni, for example, who used the stage name Apollon in his late-nineteenth century Parisian performances, was a 6'3" giant weighing a muscular 260 pounds. He was so strong that the pranks other performers played on him—secretly swapping his weights for supposedly unliftable amounts—often backfired when Apollon failed to notice the change. At an 1892 show at the Varieties Theatre in Lille, for example, a friend switched Apollon’s 220-pound barbell for a 385-pound version (almost 70 percent of the modern-day clean-and-jerk record): the strongman not only lifted it, he held it up in one hand (while standing on one leg), then tossed it up and caught it in the crook of his elbows. Apollon also used to lift a set of solid train wheels, which have been raised by just three weightlifters in the 80 years since his death. There is now an official event called “Apollon’s Wheels” on the American strongman competition circuit, in which competitors attempt to lift a replica.
Importantly, many nineteenth-century strongmen worked in tough, physical occupations before they became professional performers. John Marx, “The Luxembourg Hercules,” famous for his 3,968-pound harness lift, in which weights were lifted by straps from the shoulders, worked as a blacksmith from an early age, and hefted full beer kegs throughout his teen years as a brewer’s assistant. Martin “Farmer” Burns, a light-heavyweight (187 pounds) wrestler who lost only seven of his 6,000 wrestling matches in the late-nineteenth century, and who often hung himself from a seven-foot drop to demonstrate his tremendous neck strength, passed his grueling childhood in Midwestern lumber camps. The upbringing of all three men clearly formed an ontogenetic finishing school for their later phenomenal feats of strength.
A one-armed Tarzan
Those ferocious lions that Johnny Weissmuller wrestled in numerous Tarzan films were, luckily for him, all stuffed—not even the strongest Hollywood stuntman could have handled a real Panthera leo. Yet there is at least one genuine account of a man taking on, not a lion, but a leopard, hand-to-paw. This was the incredible fight between Belgian anthropologist Jean Pierre Hallet and a full-grown male leopard—a battle from which Hallet emerged victorious.
Hallet, at 66 tall and 254 pounds, was a giant of a man, yet he was also hampered by having just one arm (he’d lost the other while dynamiting for fish to feed starving African Pygmies). This proved no obstacle, however, when a leopard attacked his team of porters on an expedition in 1957. The gargantuan anthropologist simply jumped on the attacking cat’s back and locked its limbs with his own arm and legs. What followed was an epic 20-minute struggle as Hallet fought to stop the furious beast disemboweling him, and to simultaneously strangle it with his one arm. Even Hallet, however, wasn’t quite strong enough for that, so it wasn’t until a terrified porter threw a knife near him that Hallet was able to prevail. Even then it was another 10 minutes of violent fighting before the Belgian Tarzan could roll the leopard over to the knife, release its neck and front legs, and grab the knife to deliver the death blow.
Which is not to say, however, that there wasn’t room for an occasional, genuine, genetic freak among their number. One such prodigy, apparently, was Thomas Topham, the famous strongman who thrilled London audiences with his performances in the early eighteenth century. Topham stood a mere 5'9" tall, and weighed just 195 pounds, but his strength far outstripped that of much heavier men. He once, for example, lifted an obese (385 pound) English vicar overhead using just one arm; two-handed he was reportedly capable of hoisting a horse over a farmyard fence. On another occasion he bent, and unbent, an iron bar three inches in diameter (the unbending being the most difficult, since the muscles used are weaker). He also frequently broke ropes of 2,200-pound capacity and could smash a tobacco pipe by holding it lightly in the joint of his bent knee and simply flexing his tendons. Topham had been a carpenter in his youth, but it seems his incredible strength was not, this time, solely a matter of working toughness. As the pipe-breaking feat shows, Topham’s rock-hard muscles and tendons bulged to an unusual degree, meaning there was something different, probably genetically, about them. One observer confirmed this, stating that Topham, when stripped, appeared to be “extremely muscular” with armpits and hamstrings “full of muscles and tendons.” It could be that Topham’s muscles simply had a much greater cross-sectional area than average. Or it could even be that his genome carried some reverse mutation making his musculature closer to that of chimps and our common ancestor. Sadly, we’ll never know.
Topham’s case does raise an interesting question, though: what is the genetic future of male muscularity? We humans often think evolution and natural selection only happen to animals, or possibly to earlier versions of ourselves, yet a recent scientific analysis drawn from the international HapMap project (a study of human genetic variation, or haplotypes) found that the pace of genetic change in Homo sapiens has actually accelerated since the development of agriculture.14 Might muscularity be in for radical changes, too? Now that Homo masculinus modernus has achieved the couch-sitting, labor-shirking nirvana he has always lusted after and the selective pressure for muscularity has eased, might muscularity not eventually wither, like the residual eye-spots of cave-fish or the vestigial leg bones of whales?
Two conditions would be necessary for such an outcome. First, muscularity would have to be at least partly heritable. Second, there would need to be some selective mechanism by which a tendency toward muscularity could be either retained, or eliminated, from the gene pool. As it turns out, some aspects of muscularity (such as biceps circumference and jumping ability) do seem to be as much as 80 percent heritable—so, too, is the ability to add muscle through training. And, as it also happens, there are two selective agents operating on the level of muscularity in male humans: sex and death.
The first of these, sexual selection, is the dirty little secret of our craze for male muscle. Many authors seem puzzled by our muscle obsession, putting it down to the influence of either ancient Greek art (in fact, the nineteenth-century father of bodybuilding, Prussian strongman Eugen Sandow, often did mimic muscular Greek statues in his public performances, coating himself with white powder for a marble effect) or, as Susan Faludi did in her book Stiffed, to an overcompensation for the loss of masculine relevance in physical work. There is a simpler explanation, however: instinct. The giveaway is that it is not just Western men and boys who obsess about muscularity—all males do. One study of Fijian boys, for example, found that nearly all aspired to a big, muscular build.15 Another found that even male Ariaal nomads of Kenya wanted more fat-free muscle, even though their real problem (given their chronic malnutrition) is a lack of fat.16 The preference also shows at a remarkably early age. A 1967 study of English schoolboys aged six to ten, for instance, found that by the age of eight over 80 percent wanted to grow up muscular, describing such ideal men as “strong,” “brave,” “friendly,” “smart,” “neat,” “honest,” and even “good-looking.”
There is a very good reason for all this instinctual craving for bigger muscles—women, which brings us back to sex. Those university-age men who reported a desire for 24 to 26 pounds more muscle said it was because women find muscularity attractive. This is true, but only partly. Other studies do show that many women find muscular men more sexually attractive than their scrawny counterparts, but only for certain sorts of sexual encounters. A survey of 286 Californian university women, for example, showed they preferred less-muscular men for long-term relationships, but more-muscular men for short-term ones.17 This was because they found muscular men more dominant and attractive, but also assumed they were therefore less trustworthy. Most of the women reported that their last short-term partner had been more muscular than their last long-term one. The women also slept with the short-term, muscular men much more quickly—within an average of 1 week, as opposed to 12 weeks for the less-muscular, long-term partners. These results seem to back up two of the report’s other findings, which otherwise might have been dismissed as mere macho boasting: that muscular men reported more sexual partners overall, as well as more encounters with women who were already mated.
Why should male muscularity be so sexy? It’s not just because it signifies physical strength in the hunt and war, though that principle does operate. Big male muscles are also what is called an “honest” sexual signal, similar to the male peacock’s tail—an unfakeable indicator of how good the male’s genes are because they show he can afford their cost. Big muscles are expensive not just because of their energy cost, but also because the testosterone that builds them suppresses the immune system. This means that the disease-fighting system of any healthy, muscular male must be exceptionally strong, simply to remain functional in spite of such high testosterone. Thus, it makes perfect sense, from a mating-strategy point of view, for women to prefer muscular men for short-term liaisons, simply to access those genes. But therein lies the modern rub: thanks to contraception, those liaisons no longer have as many reproductive consequences. Sure, women’s instincts may still drive them to steal away for illicit pleasures with the occasional passing beefcake, but they save their reproductive potential for their tamer, less attractive but thoroughly-better-with-the-kids partner waiting patiently at home.
Sexual selection by modern women really might, therefore, be acting to remove male muscularity from the human gene pool. But what then of the second selective agent, death?
In this case the muscularity genotype may be in trouble from an unlikelier source—its owners. Muscular men are frequently more aggressive than less-muscular men. Interestingly, this is not because of their high testosterone levels; in fact attempts to link testosterone directly to aggression have largely failed. In pre-agricultural societies, where survival depended on individual strength, this aggression tended to spread genes for muscularity, since their aggression both won them female partners and eliminated male sexual rivals. One study of the hyperaggressive medieval Viking berserkers, for example (see BATTLE chapter), found that these violent warriors left more children and grandchildren than their less aggressive compatriots.18 Now, however, in urbanized societies governed by the rule of law, that aggression has turned back on its owners. Highly aggressive men are significantly more likely to die through violence in their youth, thereby removing themselves from the gene pool. They are similarly likely to be imprisoned while young, and to then commit further crimes incurring even longer sentences—again tying up their prime reproductive years. In the United States they even possibly (thanks to the end of the leveling effect of the draft in 1973) enlist for military service in greater numbers, making them statistically more likely to die through war.
Locked up in prisons, dying on foreign battlefields, or on urban back lots in gang turf fights, the genetic muscular legacy of Homo masculinus modernus might well be slowly disappearing. It will be up to those of us left behind—the weak who’ve inherited the earth—to face the indignities of our coming decline bravely.
Are we up to the job?
At first glance the answer appears to be yes. If medal counts are anything to go by, modern men are actually getting braver and braver. The number of medals awarded to U.S. soldiers, for example, has generally doubled or even tripled in every war this century, up until the first Gulf War. Medal counts, though, are not much help in comparing modern to ancient male bravery. (True, tribal males did have some, like the “counting coup” decorations of the Great Plains tribes in North America. We don’t, however, have precise enough data to fairly compare Cheyenne wearers of the coyote tail or eagle’s feather with modern Victoria Cross and Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.) We must look beyond the horrors of war, therefore, to the unbelievable horrors that some prehistoric men faced just in their everyday lives, to properly gauge their bravery. Try not to squirm, then, as we take a bloodcurdling tour through Australian Aboriginal penis mutilation; Kayapo Indian “man vs. wasp” fights; platform torture among native North Americans; and the finer points of Stone Age “trepanation” (open-skull surgery performed without anesthetic and while conscious).
I don’t know about you but I’m getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.
MANTHROPOLOGY. Copyright © 2009 by Peter McAllister. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.