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UB researchers look to define the boundaries of human motion

Anthropology PhD student Zacchariah Apolito throws a baseball in a racquetball court. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Evolution of motion

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Published May 16, 2023

“No one has investigated what about human hands enable accurate throwing. ”
Kevin Palmisano, master’s student
Department of Anthropology

When in our evolutionary history did humans gain the ability to throw accurately?

This question from Kevin Palmisano, a current master’s and soon to be PhD student in the Department of Anthropology, kicked off a whole new area of research for the Hominin Movement Lab. Led by assistant professor Nicholas Holowka, the lab until now has been primarily focused on the evolution of walking and running.

“No one has investigated what about human hands enable accurate throwing,” Palmisano says. “All the research to do with throwing for the most part comes from the sports medicine world. We had to come up with clever ways to tease at this problem, looking at it from an evolutionary perspective.”

How they did it

Collaborating with colleagues from Chatham University and Harvard University, Holowka and Palmisano secured the advanced technology and equipment necessary to analyze throwing forces and motion.

“[We’re] trying to understand what the fundamental adaptations in the human body that make us good at throwing are,” Holowka says. To do that, he explains, “You need equipment that lets you collect data outside of a lab, and then you also need equipment that is very specifically designed to study what’s happening within the fingers.”

Participants threw baseballs that weighed 3, 6 and 12 ounces, respectively, at a target set up about 25 feet away.

The researchers obtained wireless motion sensors, allowing them to measure 3D body movements at high speeds without the use of cameras. They also secured a specialized glove that measures the pressure applied by the individual segments of each finger while throwing.

Their data collection started in fall 2022, initially outdoors in the UB batting cages. When the weather turned, they reserved space in the Clark Hall racquetball court. The 10 participants in the study were suited up with the motion-and-force-detecting equipment, and then threw baseballs that weighed three, six and 12 ounces, respectively, at a target set up about 25 feet away.

Palmisano and Holowka are beginning to analyze the data collected and hope to publish results this fall in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Members of the Hominin Movement Lab include (from left) Nicholas Holowka, assistant professor of anthropology; master's student Kevin Palmisano and PhD student Zacchariah Apolito. The team hopes to publish results this fall in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Why it matters

Humans are the only species capable of throwing both hard and accurately, which makes evolutionary sense: Throwing would have allowed our early ancestors to hunt effectively, which was critical to their survival and the ultimate success of our species.

Though sports fans may argue, accurate throwing is not as critical to modern life. However, it’s important to understand how the structures in the body evolved to allow for this unique capability, as it goes to both our potential and our limitations.

“One advantage of this evolutionary approach to studying anatomy is that it helps us understand what the barriers of human performance should be,” Holowka says. “We try to understand what the human body’s supposed to do and what it’s not supposed to do. [The] things we aren’t supposed to do are the things which might result in injury.”