In 1940 a Dutch anatomist studying the body of a rather unique young goat made a discovery which came to revolutionise our understanding of the human skeleton. The recently departed billy had been born minus normal front legs, but the plucky critter showed true determination once adopted by a veterinary institute and placed in a grassy field. Before long, he developed a style of locomotion somewhere between a kangaroo and a hare, drawing his hind legs forwards underneath his body, then jumping semi-upright. Despite the success of his adaptation, an unfortunate accident saw him off not long after his first birthday. What a post-mortem revealed was that the animal's skeleton had actually morphed to facilitate its novel mode of travel, with thickening of the bones in his hips and legs, elongation of those in his ankles and abnormal angling of his hips and toes to accommodate a more upright posture. In a matter of months his frame had taken on characteristics of animals typically evolved to hop.
The discovery flew in the face of centuries of perceived scientific wisdom that the body's bones were fixed, growing in a predictable way according to our biological inheritance. Today, it's an established reality that our skeletons are in fact malleable, alive with blood vessels and in a perpetual state of flux, continually broken down and rebuilt as we travail our modern environments. Whilst DNA sets a rough skeletal template, our bones adapt to the dictates of our lives.
In the case of the “Strong Men of Guam”, lives of burden left an indelible mark in remains which initially stupefied those who unearthed them. In 1924, the skeleton of a “gigantic” male on the Pacific island of Tinian astounded its discoverers. Nicknamed Taotao Tagga(“man of Tagga”) by archaelogists in reference to the island's mythologically super-powered chief Taga, his skull, arm and lower leg bones suggested he had been immensely strong and unusually tall. The findings were dated to the 16th or 17thCentury. Far from an anomaly, subsequent skeletons unearthed in the vicinity suggested a whole tribe of tall, burly strongmen, initially supporting local legends of colossal ancient rulers capable of extraordinary feats of brawn. A study of their surroundings soon gave a more grounded explanation – The men of Guam were grafters, constructing their homes with enormous rocks and huge stone pillars. The largest of these measured five metres and weighed some thirteen tonnes! Where myth inferred mysticism, reality suggested sheer hard work and exercise.
So what do our skeletons tell us about our modern lives? How do we measure up to those supermen of the Pacific? Provided we pull ourselves out of our ecological nosedive such to be around in 300 years time, what will archaeologists deduce about contemporary existence?
Well...... we're forming weird lumps on ourselves from looking at our phones too much....
Yep, named the “external occipital protuberance”, the spiky growth where the neck meets the base of the skull – have a feel, you may well have one – has become much more commonplace in recent years and the experts think our dependence on our smartphones is to blame.
Heads are heavy - even those with seemingly little between the ears. Whilst our necks have evolved to support the roughly 4.5 kg of bone, muscle, recently-whitened teeth and pouty lips, they evolved to support them eyes pointing forward, not staring down into our laps as we ignore everything and everyone that's not got 4G.
A 2018 survey found Androidusers spend an average of 3 hrs 42 minutes per day gazing slack-jawed at their devices. Stick another hour on that if your phone has an apple on it!!?? If those figures sound a bit far-fetched, congratulate yourself you're clearly not one of the sad bastards pushing our average usage up by taking part in every time-wasting survey that pops up on their screen. Nevertheless, glance around any bus or train carriage and you already know most people will be gawking straight down.... and those looking up are only doing so because they're using the screen as a fucking mirror to check there's nothing in their teeth.... plus hopefully the driver.
So where the mightily-skeletoned folk from those Pacific islands may well have benefitted from bodily adaptations such as “Pillar pecs” or “Boulder biceps”, modern society is increasingly afflicted with “text neck”. Shoulder, neck and back pain, headaches and increased spinal curvature are the price many of us pay for letting Mark know we can come to his party or LOVING Sandra's photo of her kale and quinoa salad #Healhty4Life(...Oh piss off with the sanctimony anyway Sandra, everyone saw you Friday night falling out of Chicken Cottage at 3am, stinking of jaeger, with barbecue sauce in your hair.... oh and you spelled “Healthy” wrong...)
In times past, our ancestors walked up to 30km each day which equates to around 40,000 steps. These days we have to strap Fitbitsto our wrists to encourage us to walk to the toilet instead of using our micro scooter. Any member of the ancient tribes who spent 3 hrs and 42 minutes per day not hunting or gathering would likely grow hungry and die, but since we've altered the whole “survival of the fittest” paradigm, those same blights on the gene pool need merely dedicate a few minutes of that time to having Deliveroocourier sustenance straight to their gobs. Some experts think this new neck growth is the skeleton's answer to our constantly drooping heads, effectively spreading the load across a little more scaffolding.
It's hard to know just what the future holds for our bones but thanks in part to a hopping goat, we now know they'll adapt to reflect their usage and the duress of our environment. Given what we're currently doing to the environment, we're gonna need more than just a longer selfie arm....