an imaginative look a palaeolithic life

Squat like a Cro-Magnon

Palaeoanthropology should come with a health warning for people of European descent.  It should read something like this:

“Warning to those of European descent: studying palaeoanthropology may result in you realising that you have a whole load of neanderthal characteristics.  (There is, as yet, insufficient molecular evidence to tell whether that’s as a result of convergent evolution or admixture, but whatever way you look at it, you are quite possibly more neanderthal-like than other modern humans.)  If you would be uncomfortable with discovering that you may possibly have significantly more neanderthal ancestry than the rest of the human race, maybe study plant evolution or something.”

My first realisation of this was when I was at university… we were examining Homo erectus skulls (well, casts of Homo erectus skulls, because no university in its right mind would let undergraduates anywhere near actual Homo erectus skulls) and the lecturer mentioned how Homo erectus skulls have this kind of ridge that goes along the back of the head and round to each ear.  I mentioned how I have this, but only at the very back like about 2-3 inches of it.  She looked back with this “oh really…?” expression on her face.  And the very next lecture, which was on neanderthals, it was mentioned that neanderthals had a thing at the back of the skull, kind of like Homo erectus, but only about 2-3 inches.  Add to this the fact that I’m average height for a neanderthal woman and I have a very large rib cage and I’ve always been naturally strong and muscular.  I also don’t feel the cold much.  In fact I’m quite happy walking at a moderately fast pace in sub zero temperatures wearing just jeans and a t-shirt.  As a teenager, waiting at the bus stop on the way to school in winter, I repeatedly had the following conversation:

other person: aren’t you cold??

me: no

other person: seriously??  I’m freezing and you’re not even wearing a coat!!  You’re only wearing a blazer, school skirt and school shirt!  Not even long socks!  How can you not be cold?

me: I don’t feel the cold.

other person: *shakes head in disbelief*

So I was like:

that moment when you're studying palaeoanthropology and you realise you're much more like the neanderthals than the cro-magnons


That was when I was at university.

Since then they found that some neanderthals appear to have been ginger.  I’m not, but as my mum and younger daughter are, it’s safe to infer I’m heterozygous for it.  Then I read that they had blood group O, well what a surprise, so do I.

Then, THEN, just to further drive the point home, there’s this reconstruction of a neanderthal woman that looks just like me from the neck downwards.  I mean like same overall shape, body proportions, probably I could be her body double in a film if no-one saw my face (I do, in fact have a vertical forehead, pointy chin and dome shaped cranium, believe it or not).  AND there’s this reconstruction of a neanderthal toddler that is the spitting image of my little ginger daughter who seems to have inherited my rib cage.

So you can probably understand why I think that I might possibly be descended from the Lost Tribe of the Neanderthals.  It is, at the very least, a more parsimonious explanation than convergent evolution.

Just recently there was this debate on a health and fitness forum about barbell squats.  In particular, femur length and squats.  The actual issue was the ratio of the lengths of the tibia and femur and whether this made squatting difficult for people who have relatively long femurs.  (Of course, the concept of “relatively long” was missed, and replies like “I know this guy who’s 6’5″ and he can do ass to grass squats without any difficulty, so everyone else is just making excuses” followed.  So it had to be pointed out that the same problem can be expressed in terms of having a relatively short tibia compared to the femur.)  I have known since university that neanderthals had a relatively long femur compared to the length of the tibia, and also that I seem to as well, but it’s hard to tell and journal articles post ratios of actual bone lengths and you can’t very easily measure your own bones while you are still alive.

In any case, it made me do some research and I found amongst other things this article and apparently yes, having a relatively long femur compared to you tibia does indeed give you a significant mechanical disadvantage for squatting in a normal stance.  This is rectified by taking a wider stance, so that the torso (and centre of gravity) goes between the feet, rather than trying to keep your centre of gravity over the feet, which is not physically possible if you have a short shin plus a long femur, because your centre of gravity is further back and you either fall backwards, or you have to lean so far forward to stay balanced when your legs are horizontal to the ground, that a) you can’t physically get any lower because your torso and quadriceps can’t occupy the same space at the same time and b) if you try that with a barbell on your back you’ll do your lower back in.

This discovery explained a LOT.  I have always naturally done squats with a wide stance, because that’s what’s most comfortable, and it has the added bonus of not resulting in falling over backwards.  I don’t recall any time in my life where I was unable to do full (i.e. “ass to grass”) bodyweight squats, but at the same time I never really noticed that I naturally take a wider stance to do this than most other people.  There has never been any logical reason or necessity to attempt to squat with a more narrow stance, but pistol squats are another matter.  That’s a kind of one legged squat, and being on one leg necessitates having your centre of gravity over your foot at all times to avoid falling over in the process, so a wide stance is not possible, I have never been able to do those, and this is out of synch with my general ability to balance.  I can do one legged deadlifts and one legged calf raises without needing to hold on to anything for balance.  I used to play ice hockey, and I could do all kinds of tricks that involve good balance, I could even do three-jumps and cherry flips in full kit, but I couldn’t do “shoot the duck” which is basically a pistol squat while skating on one foot.  I had wondered in the past whether body proportions had anything to do with this, as I find it impossible to get my centre of gravity over my foot for pistol squats/shoot the duck, in order to stay balanced.  I’m conscious of where my centre of gravity is and where it needs to be, because I generally have very good balance.  So this explanation involving tibia/femur ratio certainly made sense!!

One great thing I got from this whole debate is that raising the heels rectifies this issue with pistol squats, because this artificially lengthens the shin by putting the whole body (except the feet and ankles) into the same position as it would be for someone with relatively longer shins.  I tried raising my heels, using the Times Atlas of History, my go-to book for standing on while weightlifting (this helps get a wider range of motion on some lifts), on account that it’s a large, flat, slab-like hardback book that can take being used in this way.  With this book under my heels…. woah!!  I can do pistol squats without falling backwards!  On either leg!!  They’re not even difficult!!  I can do Cro-Magnon squats thanks to the Times Atlas of History (and I never realised there was a difference between Cro-Magnon squats and neanderthal squats until now!)

So yeah, lost tribe of the neanderthals… maybe I should just send my DNA to the Max Planck Institute or something… and never let anyone tell you that having relatively long femurs/relatively short shins does not affect the biomechanics of squatting.  It does.  A lot.

And there’s a PhD thesis in there somewhere if anyone can demonstrate how the inability to do pistol squats led to the extinction of the neanderthals…

image: my own sketch of a neanderthal reconstruction in modern clothing from a museum in Germany.


3 responses

  1. Varda

    I love your practicality.

    May 1, 2013 at 18:30

  2. Aaron M.

    I had the exact same revelation as well, but it was mostly spurred on by the fact that a black guy in my biology class said I looked like a Neanderthal. Since then, I’ve realized that, despite being 6’5″, I have relatively long femurs. I also have a slight “bun” like the Neanderthal skull, a heavy brow, and quite a lot of body hair despite being only 20 years old; I have thick mats of hair on the pinky side of my hands (I quite like it though), and I’ve always been very tolerant of the cold. Interesting, huh? I’m not sure I like my Neanderthal traits since they certainly don’t help me in the squat. My squat is only 30 pounds heavier than my bench :(.

    March 23, 2014 at 01:06

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