Pitch Perfect: Why Our Shoulders Are Key To Throwing

Jun 26, 2013
Originally published on June 27, 2013 3:01 pm

The ability to throw a baseball or any object with speed and precision is unique to us humans. And that ability depends on certain features of our anatomy that arose in our ancestors over 2 million years ago, according to a study published in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

It's not that other animals can't throw. But their throws aren't as powerful as ours. Consider our closest relative, the chimp. "An adult chimpanzee can throw only about 20 miles per hour, despite being very athletic," says Neil Roach, an anthropologist at George Washington University and an author of the new study. In comparison, a professional baseball pitcher or cricket bowler can throw a ball at speeds of 90-100 mph.

So, what makes us such good throwers? To answer that question, Roach enlisted 20 athletes at Harvard University, many of them baseball players. He stuck reflective markers on their bodies — at the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist and the waist — and filmed the students using 3-D cameras as they threw balls into the distance.

"That allowed us to know how the motion was generated in three dimensions," Roach says. Next, he and his colleagues used mathematical modeling to analyze the individual movements of the parts of the body involved in throwing.

Our shoulders, it turns out, are crucial to high-speed throws, Roach says, because they store a lot of elastic energy, thanks to a crisscross of ligaments and tendons.

These bands of connective tissue are thick and short. When a pitcher prepares to throw by cocking his arm, the fibers controlling the shoulder get stretched like an elastic band. When he whips the arm forward to throw, the muscles, ligaments and tendons spring back to their original positions and release their elastic energy — propelling the ball from his hand. The pitcher's shoulder acts like a slingshot.

Human shoulders are broader than our primate cousins', and our shoulder blades are located along the flat of the upper back, explains Daniel Lieberman, a physical anthropologist at Harvard University and a co-author of the study. The shoulder blades of chimps, on the other hand, are positioned more along the side of the body, he says. "If your shoulders are more vertically oriented — like in a chimpanzee — then the muscles can't generate that much power.

"Our earliest ancestors also had chimp-like shoulders," Lieberman says. But evidence from two fossils suggests that may have changed with Homo erectus, a species that lived about 2 million years ago. The fossils Lieberman and his colleagues examined had shoulders resembling a modern-day human's.

Homo erectus shared two more features with humans that Lieberman and his team think crucial to the ability to throw with power: a slender, flexible waist, which allows us to twist the torso in relation to our hips and legs, and a twist in the shape of the humerus, the bone that connects the shoulder to the elbow. These features "evolved bit by bit," Lieberman says, "but they appear all in a package in Homo erectus."

He and his team think the ability to throw also gave this ancestral species an evolutionary advantage. "We don't have fangs. We don't have claws and massive paws," Lieberman notes. Without such built-in weapons, the ability to hurl objects with force and precision must have allowed Homo erectus to become a more efficient hunter.

"Homo erectus's long limbs and relatively slender body have long suggested to anthropologists that there's something different about this creature," says John Shea, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University who wasn't involved in the study. He notes that previous studies by Lieberman have suggested that Homo erectus was a good runner.

"You put these things together," Shea says, "and you have the primate equivalent of a fighter jet — something that can run for a long time, and has projectile weapons on board."

Shea thinks those projectile weapons were likely to have been stones of some sort. (The oldest spears go back only about 400,000 years.) Archaeologists often find "hand-grenade-sized stones" along with skeletons from that era, he says. And scientists initially thought the rocks might have been raw materials for stone tools. But in light of the new findings, Shea says, those stones may well have been weapons used by ancient humans to hunt or to chase away another predator from their kill.

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Baseball, of course, is called America's pastime, and while the ability to pitch a ball is not unique to our country, it turns out that it is unique to our species. A new study in the journal Nature suggests that the ability to throw with speed and precision depends on key features of human anatomy, features that may have given our ancestors the evolutionary edge they needed to spread across the world. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee takes a closer look into the findings of the study by first making a trip to a local baseball diamond.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Pitching is hard work, and it's something that kids at the Homerun Baseball Camp in Washington, D.C. are learning.

JOHN MCCARTHY: Right here. Harry, on the line. Here, let's all do it together. Ready? Follow Coach Matt.

CHATTERJEE: As Coach John McCarthy prepares to pitch, he curls up his left leg and reaches back with his right hand, pulling his shoulder as far back as he can.

MCCARTHY: Look at my hand. Look at my hand.

CHATTERJEE: He swings his arm forward and sends the ball flying. Pitching involves the entire body, but anthropologist Neil Roach of George Washington University wanted to know which parts are most important. So he had 20 athletes throw a ball while he filmed them a 3-D video camera.

NEIL ROACH: And that allowed us to look at how the motion was generated in three dimensions.

CHATTERJEE: He used mathematical modeling to break down that motion into movements of individual body parts. As it turned out, the shoulder played the most important role. Dan Lieberman is an anthropologist at Harvard University and an author on the new study.

DAN LIEBERMAN: As you cock your arm back, you store up huge amounts of elastic energy in the muscles and the other tissues that cross the front of your shoulder.

CHATTERJEE: In other words, our shoulders work like slingshots. When we pull the arm back and behind us, we stretch the ligaments and tendons. When we move the arm forward, the tissues spring back, powering our throws with their elastic energy. The reason our shoulders can do this is because our shoulder blades are placed flat on our backs.

LIEBERMAN: If your shoulder were more vertically oriented, like in a chimpanzee, your muscles can't generate the same amount of power.

CHATTERJEE: Lieberman says the earliest human ancestors also had chimp-like shoulders. But that changed about two million years ago. That's when the ancestral species Homo erectus came into the picture.

LIEBERMAN: They widened and broadened their shoulders significantly in the genus Homo.

CHATTERJEE: Now, the authors were only able to study two fossils, so they can't say for certain exactly how human-like these Home erectus shoulders were. But being able to throw with power and precision, Lieberman says, must have been advantageous to our ancestors. If you consider humans, he says...

LIEBERMAN: We don't have natural weapons. We don't have fangs and claws and massive paws.

CHATTERJEE: So hurling things is about the only thing we can do to bring down our prey. Anthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University, who wasn't part of the study, agrees. He says previous studies have suggested that Homo erectus was also a good runner.

JOHN SHEA: Now, you put these two things together, and basically you've got, you know, the primate equivalent of a fighter jet. You've got something that can run for a long, long time and has projectile weapons onboard.

CHATTERJEE: He says the new findings may explain why the species were so successful. They are thought to be the first human ancestor to spread all over the world.

SHEA: They are the first of these ancestral hominids that's found at the same time in Africa, Europe and Asia.

CHATTERJEE: No one knows what they were hunting with two million years ago, but Shea thinks they probably used stones about the size of a baseball. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.