LOMU AND THE POLYNESIAN POWER PACKS
NZ Fitness Magazine – February/March 1996
By Iulia Leilua
Polynesians are having an enormous impact on sport in New Zealand. A new theory suggests their genes make them more muscular, strong and potentially better sportspeople.
Scientific research is uncovering explanations over and above Polynesian people’s obvious assets: natural muscularity, hand to eye co-ordination and sense of rhythm.
At Otago University’s Anatomy Department, Professor Phillip Houghton has for 10 years been studying Polynesian People’s evolution, the subject of a book he published in October, People of the Great Ocean.
Houghton’s theory is that their muscle comes from their ancestors enduring extremely cold temperatures while exploring and settling the Pacific hundreds of years ago. Today’s Polynesians have inherited their body types from those early navigators.
“The Pacific can actually be a very cold place, especially for people who’re exploring it at sea with Neolithic technology and little protection from the cold winds and wet weather,” says Houghton.
“We believe Polynesian and Fijian people survived these conditions by evolving quite quickly into being big muscular people. The reason for this is the bigger you are and the more muscle you have, the more heat you can generate.”
“This type of muscle build up is typical of people from cold climates. Scandinavians are tall and muscular and Inuit Indians (Eskimos) are muscular though not necessarily tall. However, the body type normally associated with people from the tropics is small, or if they are tall they tend to be thin.”
“These people have a small body weight with little muscle content and plenty of surface area from which heat can easily be lost. This is typical of Australian aborigines, Africans and people from the tropical parts of Asia.”
Houghton believes only the strongest of the early Polynesian seafarers survived. Once they reached an island many stayed while the strongest carried on to other islands. The breeding population became big and remained big.”
But just as the evolutionary pressure was to become more muscular to survive the cold, the type of muscle fibre these early Polynesians built up is believed to have been fast twitch muscle fibres.
Although most skeletal muscles are a mixture of slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibres, Houghton says Polynesians have a predominance of fast twitch muscle fibres.
These are anaerobic, needing little oxygen to metabolise, enabling people to indulge in short bursts of energy and rest while the body reoxygenates. This is particularly suitable for sprinting, netball, rugby, weightlifting and boxing.
Houghton says their fast twitch muscle fibre makeup was another key factor in the ancient Polynesians’ survival.
“Their demand was for a muscle fibre type to keep them warm and act as a heat engine and type two, fast twitch was ideal for this. Our hypothesis is that Polynesian muscularity will be dominated by this muscle fibre type, in fact, more than most other races.”
The predominance of fast twitch muscle fibres is however, a double-edged sword – what was once an advantage for them for cold weather survival can lead to metabolic problems like heart disease, diabetes, gout and obesity.
“This particular muscle type can’t take up fat from the bloodstream very readily. If you have a diet with plenty of calories and fat, this fat would be taken into the bloodstream in very small particles, but fast twitch can metabolise it so the body deposits it as fat. I see the problem of obesity in Polynesians today as flowing on from their evolutionary background. Therefore what was once an advantage, having a ton of muscle to keep warm, and which is still an advantage can readily go over into obesity if you don’t watch yourself, because of the inability of the muscle fibre to deal with the fat.”
The relatively recent phenomenon of Polynesian prowess in sports is attributed to the fact that previously, Polynesians weren’t reaching their genetic potential because of their lifestyle.
Says Houghton: “Records show that there were often food shortages in the Islands, because of droughts or other natural disasters. Like people in other areas in the world, Polynesians weren’t reaching their full genetic potential, though generally, they were well fed. You see this even in America, the comparison between grandparents and their grandchildren, the grandchildren are so much bigger than their grandparents were at their age – it’s a secular trend.”
The other ingredient to the Polynesian sports explosion is the availability of a balanced Western diet.
“With the likes of Jonah Lomu, certainly the fact that he ate a lot of taro may have helped him in terms of diet. Because he’s been an active sportsman since school, and because he’s also become more disciplined about his eating and exercise regime with the All Blacks, this has propelled him forward toward his genetic potential. Just like him, the present generation of New Zealand-born Polynesian youth are reaching their genetic potential through optimal diet.”
Interestingly enough though, Houghton says there is evidence which shows that even Polynesian youth who lead a sedentary lifestyle are still more muscular than the best fed youth in America and Europe. Studies on physically inactive Polynesian adults in New Zealand and in the islands, measuring upper arm thickness and skin fold, show Polynesians are still genetically well endowed compared to Europeans.
Houghton says Polynesians are up there in the muscle stakes with ethnic groups like Nordics and African-Americans who are among the most muscular in the world.
“Although it hasn’t been politically correct in the past to say so, modern African-Americans are descendants of slaves, who, like Polynesians, underwent a selection process. There was a continual selection for the bigger people and modern day Afro-Americans are descendants of those who survived that cruel selection process.”
“I believe Polynesian people are naturally the biggest people in the world and they have a lot to be proud of.”