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J Hum Evol. 2011 Jul;61(1):26-41. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.01.008. Epub 2011 Mar 21.

Hand biomechanics during simulated stone tool use.

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Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, University of Calgary, Health Research Innovation Centre 3AC64, 3330 Hospital Drive N.W., Calgary, AB T2N 4N1, Canada.


Human radial digits have derived features compared with apes, with long robust thumbs, relatively larger joint surfaces, and hypertrophic thenar muscles. Here we test the hypothesis that these features evolved in the context of making and using stone tools, specifically for producing large gripping forces and for countering large joint contact stresses. We used portable force plates simulating early stone tools to: 1) document and compare the magnitude of external/internal forces and joint stresses in the radial digits during hardhammer percussion and flake use, and 2) examine how variation in digit morphology affects muscle and joint mechanics during stone tool use. Force and kinematic data were collected from a sample representing normal variation in digit morphology (n = 25). The effects of digit size/shape on digit biomechanics were evaluated using partial correlations, controlling for tool reaction forces and impact velocities. Results show that individuals with longer digits require relatively less muscle force to stabilize digital joints, and are exposed to relatively lower joint contact stresses during stone tool use, due in part to an increase in the robusticity of metacarpals and phalanges in humans relative to chimpanzees. These analyses further suggest that Pan- or australopith-like pollical anatomy presents serious performance challenges to habitual tool use. Our data support the hypothesis that evolutionary increases in thumb length, robusticity, and thenar muscle mass enabled Homo to produce more force and to tolerate higher joint stresses during tool use.

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