Every year, records in all types of sports are broken. Men are running faster, jumping higher and enduring more. This generation is taller than their parents generation, which was taller than the previous generation. If we were to look at it, it would seem as if the current generation is the most gifted physically and has the largest brainpower. There is no way that the previous generations could have achieved the same accomplishments as the men of today. Yet this view is most likely very wrong. In ancient times and even more so in the prehistoric times beyond, men were achieving similarly (if not more so) impressive feats.
An Australian anthropologist, Peter McAllister, wrote a book (“Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Man”) where he argues that our distant ancestors were probably faster and stronger than us. He claims that footprints of Ancient Australian Aborigines show that some of them could run very fast. The particular footprints that he mentions are of an ancient man that was running at 37 kph, which is only 5kph less than how fast Usain Bolt was running when he set his world record. These claims are based on discoveries at the Willandra Lakes fossil site in SE Australia. One could polemicize with these findings since they are only based on an interpretation of footprints and the more likely explanation based on a different calculation is that the speed was most likely slower. However you do have proof of some remarkable physical abilities of the Australian Aborigines even today. Peter McAllister tells the story of an Aborigine whaler who supposedly had extraordinary eyesight. This is actually confirmed by contemporary observations. Many Australian Aborigines display eye sights which are much better than the average for most other people. Some can for example see something at 6 meters, which the average person with 20/20 vision can see only at 1.5 meters.
The Cro-Magnons living 30 thousand years ago also displayed remarkable physical characteristics. Their average height was around 1m80 (6foot) and their brains were actually bigger than the brains of Modern Humans! So the Cro-Magnons were actually the same average size or bigger than most of the current population. The decrease in the average height can be attributed to the advent of agriculture and the sedentary lifestyle and later the rise of an urban lifestyle. Jared Diamond, actually argues that agriculture brought a lot bad things with it, actually writing an article called “The Worst Mistake in Human History”. In this article he argues that agriculture resulted in poor nutrition for most of the population. While the hunter gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, the agriculturalists relied on only a few staple crops. Their average height decreased remarkably through the ages. These types of observations might be behind the recent fad for the Paleo Diet, which is based on the presumed diet that the prehistoric humans would have eaten. Various scientists have disputed the premises of the Paleo Diet.
McAllister also gives examples from more recent times. For example in Ancient Greece, rowers on the triremes, which were a type of ship used by the ancient Greeks, could achieve feats that modern rowers can’t replicate. The explanation he gives for this is that these rowers had more robust bones. Almost everyone at that time had more robust bones than the men of today. This was because the people did not live the sedentary lives that people of today live. Most of us (even the elite athletes) spend a large portion of our lives sitting or doing other similar activities. Our bodies, bones and muscles do not receive the same physical stimuli as those our ancestors received and so for that reason are weaker.
Malcolm Gladwell in one of his books (“Outliers”) wrote that a person needs around 10 thousand hours of practice in order to become an expert at it. So the difference between a normal man and an elite athlete is oftentimes just the amount of practice they put into something. He also wrote that the difference between a Kenyan distance runner and an average American is the fact that the Kenyan in his life ran 15 thousand to 18 thousand more miles than the American and most of it at altitude.
All these things actually give a reflection on our lives and how we live them. Much of the illnesses and other problems that we suffer from today are a direct result of our sedentary lives. People suffer from things that our ancestors didn’t. Unfortunately we cannot change today’s society, however we can take lessons from the past. We should sit less, walk more, be more active and in general our lives will improve.