The History of Opposable Thumbs and Their Benefits

On Monday, October 9th, we celebrate Columbus Day. Regardless of your feelings towards the federal holiday, its purpose is to celebrate the explorer’s achievements as well as Italian-American heritage. In the spirit of a focus on the past, we turn our attention to the history of opposable thumbs and the benefits they provide. Most of us take for granted the fact that we are one of the few animals that have opposable thumbs. Without these “tools” so to speak, life would be much, much different for us all.

What are Opposable Thumbs?

We all know what thumbs are, but what makes human thumbs opposable? An opposable thumb gives this digit the dexterity to move around differently than your other fingers. Your thumb can touch all of your other fingers. This gives you the ability to grasp things, which we know is a really important ability to have. Imagine if you couldn’t open a jar, grip a steering wheel, or hold a pencil.

A History of Evolution

While we don’t know for certain when our ancestors adapted to have opposable thumbs, it is possible that it occurred with Homo habilis, the forerunner of Homo sapiens. It doesn’t take a bright imagination to realize the role that opposable thumbs played in our evolution. Unlike other animals, having opposable thumbs gave us the ability to perform complex activities with our hands. Being able to grasp and hold objects made it possible to not only make tools, but also use them as weapons or as protection.

We also gained the ability to create a fist which allowed us to punch rather than slap, thus creating more forceful impact. Quite interestingly, male index fingers are typically shorter than ring fingers, making it easier to create a fist that protects the bones in your hand. A possible reason? So that male hands could be used as clubs during prehistoric times. Women, on the other hand, typically have index fingers and ring fingers that are the same length. This maximizes dexterity. Simply put, opposable thumbs played a key role in the evolution of our species that has allowed us to advance and dominate in the fashion we have throughout history.

Are We Unique?

Are humans the only animals that have thumbs? How about opposable thumbs? We are not alone. If you’ve seen The Planet of the Apes series, you may think that monkeys and other primates share this ability. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans do in fact have opposable thumbs but their thumbs are nowhere near as flexible as human thumbs. Monkeys shooting guns is something we’re positive you’ll only see in the movies! Monkeys’ thumbs do still serve a purpose, though. Some primates have been able to use their thumbs to develop rudimentary tools. With that being said, the type of tools they are able to create is quite primitive when compared to what humans have the ability to create. Opossums have thumbs on their feet which help them climb and grasp branches. Giant pandas have bony wrist bones which they use to grasp bamboo while they eat. While some assume that raccoons have opposable thumbs due to their innate ability to open things, this is a myth. We are not alone but we are far, far more advanced.

Daily Life Without Opposable Thumbs

As a society, could we have accomplished anything of note without opposable thumbs? Could we have used our hands to write and develop languages? Could we have used our hands to play musical instruments and create music? Could we use our hands to type on a computer and complete our tasks at work? Could hand surgeons like us perform the variety of procedures used to treat conditions that affect the thumb, hand, or elbow? The answer to all of the above is a resounding no! In fact, daily life might more closely resemble our ancestors than the lives we live today. We would live a primitive lifestyle without the rapid technological advances that we have seen throughout the history of modern civilization.

If you’re not sold on this premise, we have an activity you can perform in the comfort of your own home that shows how much we depend on our thumbs on a daily basis. This weekend, tape your thumbs to your hands so you’re unable to use them. Now, try to perform some of the simple everyday activities that you typically breeze through: (1) brush your teeth; (2) brush your hair; (3) put on a shoe and tie your shoelaces; (4) write your name with a pen; and (5) open a jar. Are you convinced?! Let us know in the comments how much you struggled in your thumbless pursuits!

If you’re dealing with a hand condition that causes pain or makes it difficult to use your hands, don’t hesitate to contact us. Your hand health is our priority—and it should be yours as well! We’ll work with you to find a personalized treatment plan so you can get back to doing the things you love most (like opening a jar like a champ). To stay up-to-date on everything happening at HSST, make sure to follow us on Facebook. Our hands heal yours!