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Throwing Made Us Human

During the football playoffs, we began to wonder how humans, unlike any other species on Earth, learned to throw long distances. New research suggests that this unique evolutionary trait is entangled with language development in a way critical to our very existence. In fact, throwing made us human.

This research also suggests that the well-established size-weight illusion, where a person who is holding two objects of equal weight will consider the larger object to be much lighter, is more than just curious or interesting, but a necessary precursor to humans' ability to learn to throw--and to throw far. Just as young children unknowingly experience certain perceptual auditory biases that help prepare them for language development, researchers say that the size-weight illusion primes children to learn to throw. It unwittingly gives them an edge, helping them choose an object of size and weight most effective for throwing. Skilled throwers use this illusion of "equal felt" heaviness to select objects that they are able to throw to the farthest, maximum distance. This suggests that the phenomenon is not actually an illusion but instead a highly useful and accurate perception.

Why is throwing so important from an evolutionary standpoint? Homo sapiens have been so successful as a species because of three factors: Social organization and cooperation, language, which helps with the former factor, and the ability to throw long distance. This trio allowed Homo sapiens to take down all the potential competition. It brought us through the ice ages because Homo sapiens could hunt the only major food sources available, big game such as mammoths and giant sloths. "These days we celebrate our unique throwing abilities on the football or baseball field or basketball court, but these abilities are a large part of what made us successful as a species," says psychologist Geoffrey Bingham. "It was not just language. It was language and throwing that led to the survival of Homo sapiens, and we are now beginning to gain some understanding of how these abilities are rapidly acquired by members of our species."

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