Posted on December 26, 2007

Dashing Finns Were First to Get Their Skates On 5,000 Years Ago

Mark Henderson, London Times, December 24, 20097

The origins of ice-skating have been traced by scientists to the frozen lakes of Finland about 5,000 years ago, when people used skates made from animal bone.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University have calculated that skating on the primitive blades would have reduced the energy cost of travelling by 10 per cent, suggesting that it emerged as a practical method of transport and not as recreation.

Southern Finland has been identified as the most likely home of skating through an analysis of the shape and distribution of lakes in central and northern Europe, which shows that the early Finns would have had most to gain from travelling on the ice.

Archaeological evidence indicates that skating began about 3,000 BC, as skates made from bone dating to this time have been discovered in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe. The reason why people started skating and where they did it has always been a mystery. The new research, led by Federico Formenti and Alberto Minetti of the university’s Institute of Biophysical and Clinical Research into Human Movement, has offered an answer to both questions.

“In Central and Northern Europe 5,000 years ago, people struggled to survive the severe winter conditions and it seems unlikely that ice skating developed as a hobby,” Dr Formenti said. “As happened later for skis and bicycles, I am convinced that we first made ice skates to limit the energy required for our daily journeys.”

To test their theories the scientists made ice skates modelled on 23 ancient specimens in the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, then used volunteers to test them at an ice rink in the Alps. After a day getting used to the bone blades, the volunteers had their heart rates, oxygen intake and skating speeds measured so that their energy consumption and the efficiency of their skating could be calculated.

The results were fed into a mathemtical model simulating 240 10km (6mile) journeys across Europe. The scientists found that being able to skate and walk across the primitive terrain in Finland would save 10 per cent of people’s energy. The energy saving was only 3 per cent in Norway, and 1 per cent or less in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. The effect reflects the local geography of southern Finland, which has the highest concentration of lakes in a 100 sq km area anywhere in the world.

“Finnish populations could benefit more than others from developing this ingenious locomotion tool,” the scientists said. “The study supports the hypothesis that, compared to populations living elsewhere, Ancient Finns were more likely forced to develop a tool that helped them to save energy when travelling. In a time and environment in which the equilibrium between energy extracted from food and energy required to live was crucial, the minimisation of the cost of locomotion might have helped humans to survive the severe conditions.”