Tuesday, December 23, 2014
New research across thousands of years of human evolution shows that our skeletons have become much lighter and more fragile since the invention of agriculture - a result of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles as we shifted from foraging to farming
The new study shows that, while human hunter-gatherers from around 7,000 years ago had bones comparable in strength to modern orangutans, farmers from the same area over 6,000 years later had significantly lighter and weaker bones that would have been more susceptible to breaking. Bone mass was around 20% higher in the foragers - the equivalent to what an average person would lose after three months of weightlessness in space. After ruling out diet differences and changes in body size as possible causes, researchers have concluded that reductions in physical activity are the root cause of degradation in human bone strength across millennia. It is a trend that is reaching dangerous levels, they say, as people do less with their bodies today than ever before. Researchers believe the findings support the idea that exercise rather than diet is the key to preventing heightened fracture risk and conditions such as osteoporosis in later life: more exercise in early life results in a higher peak of bone strength around the age of 30, meaning that the inevitable weakening of bones with age is less detrimental. There is, in fact, no anatomical reason why a person born today could not achieve the bone strength of an orangutan or early human forager, say researchers; but even the most physically active people alive are unlikely to be loading bones with enough frequent and intense stress to allow for the increased bone strength seen in the peak point of traditional hunter-gatherers and non-human primate bones. "Contemporary humans live in a cultural and technological milieu incompatible with our evolutionary adaptations. There's seven million years of hominid evolution geared towards action and physical activity for survival, but it's only in the last say 50 to 100 years that we've been so sedentary - dangerously so," said co-author Dr Colin Shaw from the University of Cambridge's Phenotypic Adaptability, Variation and Evolution (PAVE) Research Group. "Sitting in a car or in front of a desk is not what we have evolved to do."