Sporting one of history’s most iconic beards, Charles Darwin once theorized that the long hair of a lion’s mane helps to protect the throat from attacks by rival males. Now, it seems that the famous naturalist may have been deliberately sporting a similar kind of follicular armor, as a new study suggests that facial hair may have evolved to shield the jaw from fisticuffs.
There’s no denying that human males have a long-standing tradition of punching each other in the face, and a wealth of scientific research indicates that everything from the shape of our fists to the contours of our face may be designed for this very purpose. It’s also interesting that, despite being thought of as purely ornamental, beards tend to be associated with masculinity and aggressiveness.
With that in mind, the authors of this latest study decided to investigate if facial hair might convey some sort of actual benefit when fighting. However, because it’s difficult to receive funding to punch people in the face, the team instead created a fiber epoxy composite as a stand-in for the human jaw, which they then covered in sheepskin before proceeding to batter it with a blunt object.
Fully furred samples were able to absorb 37 percent more energy than those that were plucked or sheered, and only broke on 45 percent of tests while hairless models cracked almost every time.
Explaining their findings in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology, the study authors speculate that the fur helped to slow down the striking head as it connected with the model, causing the impact to be absorbed more slowly. At the same time, the force of the blow was distributed over a larger surface area as individual hair samples absorbed much of the energy in addition to the surface itself.
The researchers therefore conclude that “hair is indeed capable of significantly reducing the force of impact from a blunt strike and absorbing energy, thereby reducing the incidence of failure.” However, in reference to an earlier study that found that bearded mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters are not statistically more successful than clean-shaven competitors, the authors are keen to clarify that their results “provide no evidence that beards provide protection against being knocked out.”
“Rather our results are presumed to be most relevant to skin lacerations and facial bone fractures,” they explain.
Furthermore, because the sheepskin used to replicate facial hair in this experiment was thick and woolly, the researchers concede that their findings probably only apply to men who are able to grow particularly lavish beards, and that whispy hair or bumfluff is unlikely to provide any protection against a punch in the face.
Before wrapping up their paper, the authors point out that beards presumably also convey some sort of evolutionary disadvantage, otherwise women would surely have them too. Mustaches and sideburns were not considered in this study, which means there’s still much more scope for punching people in the face in the name of science.