Why humans are the fat primate
Cyril Ruoso/Minden Pictures/Newscom

Why humans are the fat primate

Bonobos, endangered great apes considered—along with chimpanzees—the closest living relative to humans, spend most of each day climbing through trees, collecting fruit and leaves. Compare that with the lives of early humans who traversed hot, barren landscapes and it begins to make sense why we’re the fattier, less muscular primate. Over the past 3 decades, two researchers analyzed the hard-to-come-by bodies of 13 bonobos that had died in captivity and compared them with already collected data on 49 human bodies donated by means of autopsy to help understand how evolution drove this change. Although some captive bonobos have become obese, the researchers found that, on average, the apes’ body mass—which is thought to resemble that of the closest common ancestor we share with them—is composed of 10% to 13% skin, whereas humans have only 6% skin. This thinner skin, the team hypothesizes, probably arose around the same time that Homo sapiens gained the ability to sweat, allowing more time spent in hot, open areas. The scientists also found that we pack on more fat than our ape relatives: Female and male humans average 36% and 20% body fat, whereas female and male bonobos average 4% and close to 0% body fat, respectively. Increased fat, the researchers hypothesize, allowed our species to survive—and reproduce—during times of low food availability. As for muscle, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bonobos come out on top, especially when it comes to upper body muscles needed for tree climbing and swinging, which became unnecessary when humans went strictly bipedal. The new findings, the researchers say, help illustrate the forces of natural selection that may have affected H. sapiens’s soft tissues even before our brains started expanding in size and tool use shaped the species.