Biology Magazine

Humans Are Really Good at Using Tools with Our Elbows

Posted on the 11 September 2018 by Reprieve @EvoAnth

Our hands are pretty good at using tools, probably because they've been adapting to do so for more than 3 million years 1. But it turns out they aren't the only body part we can use tools well with. We can also use our elbows, feet, and non-dominant hands quite well 2.

Now, that doesn't mean all these weird body parts also evolved for tool use. Humans, it seems, are just very good at generalising our motor skills. Once we've figured out how to use a hammer to hit a nail, it doesn't take much effort to apply those skills to other body parts 2.

This ability - called poly-dexterity - isn't just some weird quirk of our brain. Instead, its discoverers suggest it's a sign that the bits of the brain responsible for tool use evolved before our hands. Hence why the former isn't limited to just the latter 2.

If true, this could dramatically change our understanding of the order things happened during human evolution.

Experiments with elbows

Osiurak et al. found a paradox.

See, it seems that our fancy hands were evolving ~3 million years ago, back our brain was still chimp-like. So when the brain began to catch up, there was already some specialised equipment at the end of our arms. Thus, many people think that dexterity and our hands are thoroughly intertwined in our brain 1.

And yet, we see people born without arms able of performing quite deft actions. How could this be if our dexterity is stuck in our hands 2?

This led Osiurak et al. to speculate that maybe dexterity and hands weren't as closely linked as many people thought. So they did what any good scientists do when they come up with some speculation: they set out to test it.

Their test was deceptively simple. It essentially consisted of taping tools to different body parts, like our elbows. If people really were poly-dexterous as they thought, they should have little trouble adapting to these new circumstances. On the other hand, if hands are really crucial for dexterity they should just flop incapably like a Magikarp in battle.

As both the title and summary at the start of this post gives away, their results supported their hypothesis. It seems that people poly-dextrous, capable of adapting to use just about any body part you can tape a tool too.

Whilst discovering this secret superpower is cool and all, there's more significance to this discovery. The fact that dexterity isn't just limited to our hands has some important implications for our evolution.

Poly-dexterity and human evolution

The obvious implication that we can use tools with our elbows is that tool use isn't as intertwined with our hands as we thought. So whilst we may start seeing hands adapting to tool use ~3 million years ago, tool use may have been happening for a long time previously.

This makes sense. After all, many apes use tools; so it's likely our early ancestors were too. Plus, why would our hand start to adapt to tool use if we weren't already using tools? Things don't evolve on the off chance they might become useful later.

But this also raises a key question. If we were using tools for a long time, why did our hands only start adapting to this ~3 million years ago? Something changed in our evolution to free up our hands for tool use. Maybe it was the fact we were using them less to climb, maybe tool use suddenly became more important, or perhaps we just got evolutionarily lucky 1.

So this research hands us more questions than it solves. But now we know that they're out there, we can start reaching out for answers. Who knows what we might grab onto? And how many more hand-based puns I can squeeze into the next post on the subject?


  1. Kivell, T.L., 2015. Evidence in hand: recent discoveries and the early evolution of human manual manipulation. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 370(1682), p.20150105.
  2. Osiurak, F., Lesourd, M., Delporte, L. and Rossetti, Y., 2018. Tool Use and Generalized Motor Programs: We All Are Natural Born Poly-Dexters. Scientific reports, 8(1), p.10429.

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Big Food Giants Manipulate Public Health Policy in China

    Food Giants Manipulate Public Health Policy China

    Coca-Cola is at it again. As soda sales decline in the United States and Europe, beverage companies look to emerging economies like China for growth. And, it... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Dietdoctor
  • Jewellery for a Precious You

    Jewellery Precious

    Jewellery is always close to a woman’s heart. It completes her look and boost confidence. Considering the changing trends in jewellery fashion, it becomes... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Dr.jenifer Sayyed
  • Rajshri Productions’ Next Is A Film On Friendship | Hum Chaar | Trailer

    Abhishek Dixit’s debut feature film Hum Chaar is a Bollywood film made under the banner of Rajshri’s film. Hum Chaar is written and directed by Abhishek Dixit. Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Themoviean
  • Saint Paul the First Hermit

    Saint Paul First Hermit

    Today is the feast day of Saint Paul the hermit. This is a sweet and delicate Oatmeal Bread topped with rolled oats and naturally sweetened with agave. Saint... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Veronica46
  • Irupathiyonnaam Noottaandu | Teaser | Pranav Mohanlal | Arun Gopy

    Arun Gopy’s Irupathiyonnaam Noottaandu is an upcoming Malayalam action-drama feature film starring Pranav Mohanlal and Zaya David in the lead roles. Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Themoviean
  • A Year Of Body Positivity

    Year Body Positivity

    Last January, as I sat there on New Years eve all set to make the same old resolutions I've made year after year for as long as I can remember, I realised how... Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Sparklesandstretchmarks
  • Garden Bloggers Bloom Day – Jan 2019

    Garden Bloggers Bloom 2019

    Euphorbia rigidaWhen I went out to take the photos for this blog post I was surprised at how much was in flower dotted around the garden. Read more

    The 15 January 2019 by   Patientgardener