Chimpanzees are our closest cousins, they share 98 percent of their genes with us. Despite this genetic similarity, chimpanzees possess physical attributes that far exceed the capabilities of the average human. Notably, chimpanzees are significantly stronger than humans, possessing a muscle mass that allows them to lift and carry objects that would be impossible for us. The reasons for this superior strength are multifaceted and have been the subject of much research and debate. In this article, we will explore the various factors that contribute to the physical prowess of chimpanzees and compare them to the abilities of humans.

Why are chimpanzees stronger than humans?

I was in a zoo in 2009, watching chimpanzees. It was a hot day, and some people were giving water to the chimps. A child, who was drinking coke, shook the tin of coke, the fluid hit the wire fence, and some drops went into a male chimp’s eye. Chimps hate water, they hate being wet. He got angry and punched a timber like a human being would do. Wow, it was a strong punch. Even a pro boxer would be knocked out.

Why are our closest cousins that strong?

A female chimpanzee holding a stick
Chimpanzees are members of the family Hominidae, along with humans, gorillas, and orangutans. They split from the human line about four to six million years ago. They are one of the closest living relatives of humans, sharing approximately 98% of our DNA. They are so similar to us that they can even use tools. Despite these similarities, they are much stronger than humans. Image source: “A female chimpanzee holding a stick” on Deposit Photos

The short and simple answer is, that our closest cousins, chimpanzees are stronger than humans because our nervous systems exert more control over our muscles. Our fine motor control prevents great feats of strength but allows us to perform delicate and uniquely human tasks; like playing violin or drawing pictures.

Studies have shown that chimpanzees have a greater proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers compared to humans. These muscle fibers are responsible for producing quick, explosive bursts of force, making them essential for activities such as sprinting and jumping. Additionally, chimpanzees have a higher density of muscle fibers in their limbs, particularly in their arms and upper body, which enables them to climb trees and swing from branches with ease. The combination of these physical attributes gives chimpanzees an impressive amount of strength that is unmatched by most humans.

The video published by Scientific American titled Why Are Chimpanzees Stronger Than Humans? below claims that chimps have 3 to 5 times the strength of humans. According to the American popular science magazine, the main difference in strength between humans and chimpanzees most likely has to do with the neurological control of the muscles.

Why are chimpanzees stronger than humans? The last several years have seen a number of horrific maulings at the hands of chimpanzees. How can animals that share 99 percent of their genes with us, yet are only a fraction of our weight, possess such amazing strength?

Large motor units have a neuron that connects to many muscle fibers and causes all of them to contract at once. Small motor units are where a neuron connects to only a few muscle fibers so that finer control of movement is possible.

Since humans have much more grey matter in their brains than chimps, there must be fewer neurons available to control the chimps’ muscles which means that more of the neurons must control large muscle units. Therefore when the chimpanzee is contracting a muscle it is more of an all-or-nothing thing.

Whereas humans have much more small motor units so we have finer control over the amount of force the muscle is exerting, so the problem is that we are unable to make all the small motor units fire to get the maximum strength out of the muscle, whereas the chimp is able to do that.

The differences in anatomy are also important. Even if a 150-pound (70 kg) chimp and a human with the same weight have the same total muscle mass, the chimp will have far more of that muscle in his arms, whereas the human will have much more leg muscle. Chimps use their upper body and arms much more than humans, so their upper bodies, especially their arms grow stronger.

When you look at the lifestyles of the typical human and the typical chimp, you see how a lot of the difference can come about from a chimp who will spend its day swinging around in trees and other such muscle-intensive activities. Even a traditional hunter doesn’t get up to that level of exercise, at least not consistently.

Chimpanzee Travis incident

One of the most well-known attacks came from Travis, an animal actor, who appeared in several television commercials, including spots for Coca-Cola. On February 16, 2009, he suddenly attacked his owner Sandra Herold’s 55-year-old friend Charla Nash, and grievously mauled her, blinding her while severing her nose, ears, and both hands and severely lacerating her face. He was subsequently shot dead on the arrival of the police, after trying to attack an officer.

The photos of the incident were horrible, I won’t publish them here but you can search for them (beware: the photos are really, really bad).

On February 16, 2009, Travis attacked Sandra Herold’s 55-year-old friend, Charla Nash, inflicting devastating injuries to her face and limbs. Travis had left the house with the Herolds’ car keys, and Nash came to help get the chimp back in the house; upon seeing Nash holding one of his favorite toys, Travis immediately attacked her. Travis was familiar with Nash, who had also worked at the Herolds’ towing company, although Nash had a different hairstyle at the time of the attack.

The chimp had been taking medication for Lyme disease, maybe this also contributed to the unprovoked attack. Herold, then 70 years old, attempted to stop Travis by hitting him with a shovel and stabbing him with a butcher knife. “For me to do something like that – put a knife in him – was like putting one in myself,” Herold later said.

The chimp turned around, she said, as if to say, “Mom, what did you do?” The ape was angered more. Herold then called 9-1-1 and pleaded for help. Travis’ screams can be heard in the background of the tape as Sandra pleads for the police, who initially believed the call to be a hoax, until she started screaming, “He’s eating her!”

Emergency medical services waited for police before approaching the house. Travis walked up to the police car when it arrived, tried to open a locked passenger door, and smashed a side-view mirror. Then he went calmly around to the driver’s side door and opened it, at which point Officer Frank Chiafari shot him several times. Travis retreated to the house, where he was found dead next to his cage.

Travis, the chimpanzee
Charla Nash with Travis the chimpanzee in Stamford, Conn., during happier times. Photo:

Here is another story about a strong man who lost his face and most of his fingers to a chimpanzee attack on NY Daily News. He was in a medically induced coma for months. He’s undergone more than 60 surgeries since.

In fact, when a chimpanzee attacks, most of the damage does not come from their strength; the worst thing is: they know how to hurt a human. Because they know how to hurt a chimpanzee. They attack the face, neck, eyes, genitals, etc. And they are stronger than a human.

Previously, researchers thought that a male chimpanzee’s arm is four times stronger than an athlete’s arm with the same weight (they are bigger and heavier than most people think: the male common chimp stands up to 1.2 meters/3.9 feet high and weighs as much as 70 kg/150 lb, females are smaller). Apparently, recent studies have revised the number down to maybe twice as strong as a human of the same weight.


M. Özgür Nevres

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