Human athletic paleobiology; using sport as a model to investigate human evolutionary adaptation

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2020 May;171 Suppl 70(Suppl 70):42-59. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23992. Epub 2020 Jan 20.


The use of sport as a conceptual framework offers unprecedented opportunities to improve our understanding of what the body does, shedding new light on our evolutionary trajectory, our capacity for adaptation, and the underlying biological mechanisms. This approach has gained traction over recent years. To date, sport has facilitated exploration not only of the evolutionary history of our species as a whole, but also of human variation and adaptation at the interindividual and intraindividual levels. At the species level, analysis of lower and upper limb biomechanics and energetics with respect to walking, running and throwing have led to significant advances in the understanding of human adaptations relative to other hominins. From an interindividual perspective, investigation of physical activity patterns and endurance running performance is affording greater understanding of evolved constraints of energy expenditure, thermoregulatory energetics, signaling theory, and morphological variation. Furthermore, ultra-endurance challenges provoke functional trade-offs, allowing new ground to be broken in the study of life history trade-offs and human adaptability. Human athletic paleobiology-the recruitment of athletes as study participants and the use of contemporary sports as a model for studying evolutionary theory-has great potential. Here, we draw from examples in the literature to provide a review of how the use of athletes as a model system is enhancing understanding of human evolutionary adaptation.

Keywords: adaptation; human athletic paleobiology; human evolution; plasticity; sport.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological*
  • Athletes*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Humans
  • Physical Endurance*