One’s somatype is, really, the first thing they notice. Somatypes are broken down into three categories: ectomorph (skinny build), endomorph (rounder, fatter build) and mesomorph (taller, more muscular build). Like numerous other traits, different races and ethnies fall somewhere in between these three soma categories. Africans are meso, while Europeans are endo, while East Asians are more endo than Europeans. Differences in somatype, too, lead to the expected racial differences in sports due to differing anatomy and fat mass.
History of somatyping
The somatype classification was developed by psychiatrist William Sheldon in the 1940s, while releasing a book in 1954 titled Atlas of Men: Somatotyping the Adult Male At All Ages. He theorized that one’s somatype could predict their behavior, intelligence, and where they place socially. Using nude posture photos from his Ivy League students, he grouped people into three categories based on body measurements and ratios—mesomorph, endomorph, and ectomorph. Clearly, his theory is not backed by modern psychology, but I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in the somatyping.
The three somatypes are endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph. Each type has different leverages and body fat distribution. Endomorphs are rounder, with short limbs, a large trunk, carry more fat in the abdomen and lower body, large chest, wide hips, and has hardly any muscular definition, yet gain strength easily. Ectomorphs, on the other hand, are taller, lankier with longer limbs, a narrow chest, thin body, short trunk and has little muscle.
There are further subdivisions within the three main types, mesomorphic-endomorph (meso-dominant), mesomorph-endomorph (both types are equal with less ectomorphy), ectomorphic-mesomorph, endomorphic-mesomorph, endomorph-ectomorph, and ectomorphic-endomorph. This can be denoted as “7-1-1”, which would indicate pure endomorph, “1-7-1” would indicate pure mesomorph and “1-1-7” would be a pure ectomorph. Further breakdowns can be made such as “1.6-2.7-6.4”, indicating the somatype is ecto-dominant. On the scale, 1 is extremely low while 7 is extremely high. The races, however, fall along racial lines as well.
Racial differences in somatype
West Africans and their descendants are the most mesomorphic. They also have the highest amount of type II muscle fibers which is a leading cause of their success in sporting events which call for short bursts of speed. Due to having longer limbs, they have a longer stride and can generate more speed. West Africans also have the narrowest hips out of all of the races (Rushton, 1997: 163) which further leads to their domination in sprinting competitions and events that take quick bursts of speed and power. However much success their morphology lends them in these types of competitions, their somatype hampers them when it comes to swimming. The first black American qualified for the Olympic swimming team in the year 2000. This is due to a narrower chest cavity and denser, heavier bones.
East Africans are most ectomorphic which you can see by their longer limbs and skinnier body. They have an average BMI of 21.6, one of the lowest in the world. Their low BMI, ectomorphic somatype and abundance of slow twitch muscle fibers are why they dominate in distance running events. Many explanations have been proposed to explain why East Africans (specifically Kenyans and Ethiopians) dominate distance running. The main factor is their somatype (ectomorphic) (Wilbur and Pitsiladis, 2012). The authors, however, downplay other, in my opinion, more important physiologic characteristics such as muscle fiber typing, and differences in physiology. Of course their somatype matters for why they dominate, but other important physiologic characteristics do matter. They clearly evolved together so you cannot separate them.
Europeans are more endo than East Africans and West Africans but less so than East Asians. Europeans have a strong upper body, broad shoulders, longer and thicker trunk and shorter extremities along with 41 percent slow twitch fibers compared to blacks’ 33 percent slow twitch fibers. This is why Europeans dominate power sports such as powerlifting and the World’s Strongest Man. Eighty to 100 percent of the differences in total variation in height, weight, and BMI between East Asians and Europeans are associated with genetic differences (Hur et al, 2008). If the variation between East Asians and Europeans on height, weight and BMI are largely attributed to genetic factors, then the same, I assume, should be true for Africans and Europeans/East Asians.
East Asians are the most endomorphic race and have lighter skeletons and more body fat. They have short arms and legs with a large trunk, which is a benefit when it comes to certain types of lifting movements (such as Olympic lifting, where East Asians shine) but hampers them when it comes to sprinting and distance running (although they have higher rates of type I fibers). East Asians also have more body fat at a lower BMI which is further evidence for the endomorphic somatype. This is also known as ‘TOFI’, ‘Thin on the Outside, Fat on the Inside’. Chinese and Thai children had a higher waist circumference and higher trunk fat deposits than Malay and Lebanese children (Liu et al, 2011). This is a classic description of the endomorphic individual.
Human hands and feet are also affected by climate. Climatic variation played a role in shaping the racial somatic differences we see today. The differences seen in hands and feet “might be due to the presence of evolutionary constraints on the foot to maintain efficient bipedal locomotion” (Betti et al, 2015).
Black-white differences in somatype
Fifty percent of the variability in lean mass is due to genetic factors (Arden and Specter, 1997) with the heritability of stature 85 percent in a meta-analysis (Peeters et al, 2009). Racial differences in somatype are also seen at a young age (Malina, 1969). Blacks had better muscular development and less fat-free mass at an early age. Vickery et al (1988) argued that since blacks have thinner skin folds that caliper measurements testing differences in body fat would be skewed. Malina (1969) also reports the same. Note that Malina’s paper was written in 1969, literally right before it got pushed on the American populace that fat was bad and carbohydrates were good.
Looking at the two tables cited by Malina (1969) on somatype we can see the difference between blacks and whites.
|Data from Malina, (1969: 438)||n||Mesomorph||Ectomorph||Endomorph|
|Data from Malina (1969: 438)||Blacks||Whites|
|Thin-build body type||8.93||5.90|
|Submedium fatty development||48.31||29.39|
|Fat and very fat categories||9.09||21.06|
Since this data was collected literally before we went down the wrong path and wrongly demonized fat and (wrongly) championed carbohydrates, this is an outstanding look at somatype/fat mass before the obesity epidemic. There is a clear trend, with blacks being more likely to have lower levels of fat-free body mass while also more likely to be mesomorphic. This is a ton of implications for racial differences in sports.
Somatype is predicated on lean mass, stature, bone density and fat-free body mass. Since racial differences appear in somatype at an early age, there is a great chance that the differences in somatype are genetic in nature.
College (American) football players are more likely to be endo-mesomorphs while high-school football players were more likely to be mesomorphs (Bale et al, 1994). This partly explains black over representation in football. Further, basketball, handball, and soccer players in Nigeria were taller, heavier, and had lower percent body fat than other athletic groups (Mazur, Toriola, and Igobokwe, 1985). Somatic differences have a lot to do with domination in sports competition.
Somatic differences are also seen in boxing. Elite boxers are more likely to have a mesomorphic somatype compared to non-athletes. Higher weight divisions were also more likely to be mesomorphic and endomorphic than the lower weight divisions which skewed ectomorphic (Noh et al, 2014). Blacks do well in boxing since they have a more mesomorphic somatype. Due to their higher levels of type II fibers, they can be quicker and throw more forceful punches which translates to boxing success.
Racial differences in somatype are another key to the puzzle to figure out why the races differ in elite sporting competition. The races evolved in different geographic locations which then led to differences in somatype. West African sports dominance is explained by their somatype, muscle fiber type, and physiology. The same can be said for Europeans in strength sports/powerlifting sports, and East Asians with ping-pong and some strength sports (though, due to lower muscle mass they are the least athletic of the races). I am not, of course, denying the impact of determination to succeed or training of any kind. What one must realize, however, is that one with the right genetic makeup/somatype and elite training will, way more often than not, outperform an individual with the wrong genetic makeup/somatype and elite training. These inherent differences between races explain the disparities in elite sporting competitions.
Arden, N. K., & Spector, T. D. (1997). Genetic Influences on Muscle Strength, Lean Body Mass, and Bone Mineral Density: A Twin Study. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research,12(12), 2076-2081. doi:10.1359/jbmr.1918.104.22.1686
Bale P, Colley E, Mayhew JL, et al. Anthropometric and somatotype variables related to strength in American football players. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 1994;34:383–9
Betti, L., Lycett, S. J., Cramon-Taubadel, N. V., & Pearson, O. M. (2015). Are human hands and feet affected by climate? A test of Allen’s rule. American Journal of Physical Anthropology,158(1), 132-140. doi:10.1002/ajpa.22774
Hur, Y., Kaprio, J., Iacono, W. G., Boomsma, D. I., Mcgue, M., Silventoinen, K., . . . Mitchell, K. (2008). Genetic influences on the difference in variability of height, weight and body mass index between Caucasian and East Asian adolescent twins. International Journal of Obesity,32(10), 1455-1467. doi:10.1038/ijo.2008.144
Liu, A., Byrne, N. M., Kagawa, M., Ma, G., Kijboonchoo, K., Nasreddine, L., . . . Hills, A. P. (2011). Ethnic differences in body fat distribution among Asian pre-pubertal children: A cross-sectional multicenter study. BMC Public Health,11(1). doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-500
Malina, R. M. (1969). Growth and Physical Performance of American Negro and White Children: A Comparative Survey of Differences in Body Size, Proportions and Composition, Skeletal Maturation, and Various Motor Performances. Clinical Pediatrics,8(8), 476-483. doi:10.1177/000992286900800812
Mathur, D. N., Toriola, A. L., & Igbokwe, N. U. (1985). Somatotypes of Nigerian athletes of several sports. British Journal of Sports Medicine,19(4), 219-220. doi:10.1136/bjsm.19.4.219
Noh, J., Kim, J., Kim, M., Lee, J., Lee, L., Park, B., . . . Kim, J. (2014). Somatotype Analysis of Elite Boxing Athletes Compared with Nonathletes for Sports Physiotherapy. Journal of Physical Therapy Science,26(8), 1231-1235. doi:10.1589/jpts.26.1231
Peeters, M., Thomis, M., Beunen, G., & Malina, R. (2009). Genetics and Sports: An Overview of the Pre-Molecular Biology Era. Genetics and Sports Medicine and Sport Science, 28-42. doi:10.1159/000235695
Rushton J P (1997). Race, Evolution, and Behavior. A Life History Perspective (Transaction, New Brunswick, London).
Vickery SR, Cureton KJ, Collins MA. Prediction of body density from skinfolds in black and white young men. Hum Biol 1988;60:135–49.
Wilber, R. L., & Pitsiladis, Y. P. (2012). Kenyan and Ethiopian Distance Runners: What Makes Them so Good? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance,7(2), 92-102. doi:10.1123/ijspp.7.2.92