How modern man became a wuss


Softened by technology, and weaker and slower than our prehistoric forebears, modern men are ‘the sorriest cohort’ of males in history, according to a new book

WHEN COMPARED with our male predecessors, modern man is a wuss. That’s according to a new book by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister, called Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male. McAllister is unapologetic in his assessment of modern male shortcomings, which he has identified by studying fossil remains. Summarising his findings in the opening pages, he says:“If you’re reading this then you – or the male you have bought it for – are the worst man in history. No ifs, no buts – the worst man, period . . . As a class we are in fact the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiensto ever walk the planet.”

Obviously, McAllister has never been to a Junior B hurling final or spent an afternoon saving turf in west Clare.

Some of his observations are that any Neanderthal woman could have shamed Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm wrestle and that prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have beaten world record holder Usain Bolt in a sprint. He bases his assessment of the speed of our ancestors on a set of 20,000-year-old footprints of six men chasing prey. By analysing one of the prints, McAllister is able to demonstrate that the man, known as T8, reached speeds of 37kph on what was soft ground. The world champion, Bolt, reached speeds of 42kph when setting his world 100 metres record at last year’s Beijing Olympics, with the benefit of hard ground and spiked running shoes.

Comparing the two speeds, McAllister says: “But if they can do that speed of 37kph on very soft ground, I suspect there is a strong chance they would have outdone Usain Bolt if they had all the advantages that he does.”

Many prehistoric men, he believes, could have run the same speeds. “We have to remember too how incredibly rare these fossilisations are. What are the odds that you would get the fastest runner in Australia at that particular time in that particular place, in such a way that was going to be preserved?”

Turning to Neanderthal woman, McAllister believes they had 10 per cent more physical bulk than modern man. Therefore, she would have reached 90 per cent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulk at his peak. “But because of the quirk of her physiology, with a much shorter lower arm, she would slam him to the table without a problem,” he says.

So modern man is slower, weaker and less agile than our fossilised forebears. McAllister reinforces his claims with other examples, including: Roman soldiers could finish more than a marathon and a half in a day, while carrying more than half their body weight in equipment; rowers employed in ancient Athens could exceed the exertions of modern oarsmen; Australian aboriginals could throw a spear 110 metres, easily beating the current world javelin record of 98.48 metres.

THE REASON FOR the decline of modern man, McAllister believes, is the onset of the Industrial Revolution and a cushier male existence, where technology has replaced stamina and toughness.

Prof Muiris O’Sullivan, associate professor at the UCD school of archaeology, believes that anthropologists don’t have to look too far back to see the softening of modern man. They could just follow recent trends in the GAA.

“Down the years, the best teams have been backboned by players from farming backgrounds, individuals whose lifestyles from childhood gave them a natural strength and endurance,” O’Sullivan notes. He feels that this is less noticeable today, as farming and work practices have changed. “The physical grind of the past has been replaced by farm machinery and purpose-built animal units. Supermarkets have brought farm diets more into line with the general population and distractions like televisions and computers and focused gym-work have promoted physical equalisation across the population. So, yes, my amateur observations suggest that lifestyle and environment (eg, athletes brought up at high altitudes) can provide underlying advantages.”

Having said all that, O’Sullivan warns against taking McAllister’s conclusions as concrete evidence that modern males are less rugged.

“I would have thought that measuring someone’s speed 20,000 years ago by examining surviving footprints is not a sufficiently exact science to support the detailed claims reported,” he says. “Likewise, equations between muscle bulk and specific physical abilities, such as strength, explosiveness, speed or alertness, are not always easy to sustain. It is interesting that anatomists have not found any major differences between skeletal material from ancient Ireland (eg, the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age burials at the Mound of the Hostages, Tara) and that represented in today’s population. At least, the differences are no greater than those between individuals in these ancient burials. Which probably goes to show that generalisations from the particular are difficult to sustain.”

Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male, by Peter McAllister, is published by Hachette Australia