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The handshake has a serious PR problem. For a long time the go-to, multipurpose, international greeting, it was abruptly banished in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world. But has it gone for ever? Is it consigned to history? Have we been shocked into seeing what we should have realised all along: that it is sheer recklessness to indiscriminately touch other people’s dirty paws? The White House Covid-19 taskforce member and immunologist-turned-American hero Dr Anthony Fauci certainly thought so last year when he proclaimed, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”
If the handshake is indeed undergoing an extinction event, then who better than a palaeoanthropologist, someone who studies human evolution, to speak at the wake? Except that, as a palaeoanthropologist, I’m refusing to write its obituary. Drawing on multiple lines of evidence, I have come to the conclusion that the handshake is, in fact, the owner of a rich, fascinating story, hiding in plain sight. I think the handshake isn’t just cultural: it’s biological, it’s programmed into our DNA.
I know the value of the handshake because I have lived with it and I have lived without it. For the first 26 years of my life I followed strict Muslim law (in which the majority of Muslim jurists believed that men and women should not have any physical contact – no handshakes). It was awkward, and the tactics I adopted to avoid shaking men’s hands in the UK during the noughties ranged from ingenious to ludicrous (in fact, “handshake dodgeball” tactics weren’t an unusual topic of conversation and humour among my fellow devout friends).
My Muslim background, it seems, was the dry run for social distancing, it was Dominic Cummings going to Barnard Castle. Over the years I tried: 1) Avoidance – rarely works in a way which makes you feel good about yourself. 2) The right hand placed on the heart – I liked this as it made me seem mildly exotic, hippyish and it communicated warmth. I’ve found myself reverting to this on Covid Zoom calls. 3) A salute – I thought it made me look hip and cool. In hindsight, a Muslim woman in a floor-length, dark abaya cloak in the 2000s saluting people was probably startling and perhaps “off-brand”. 4) Communication – “Oh, I don’t shake.” When delivered well it seemed endearing, but my delivery was often hit and miss – well, more hit and run. 5) Covering my hands with a glove or material – I decided that this was an acceptable loophole.
Very, very rarely I would relent. If it just seemed too awkward or if too much was at stake, I shook hands and in doing so I was following a minority view among Muslim jurists that handshakes were permissible, as long as – and this was the important bit – they weren’t flirtatious. I have since learned that there is a big difference between handshaking and hand-holding.
As I became secular, I learned to embrace the handshake. But there was a protracted period of heightened awareness – touching male hands was novel and I was hyper-conscious about it. Those with conservative religious views believed that, when it came to touch, it was a slippery slope. They actually weren’t wrong – at the time I was tentatively embracing handshakes, the secular world simultaneously wanted me to embrace the embrace. And hugs with the opposite gender were something I was not prepared for.
Although these days I am quite the hugger, at the time I struggled with it. When my new best friend Rich tried to hug me, I would have neurotic conversations with myself along the lines of, “This is normal in this culture, this is just what people do, don’t overthink it.” A year or two later when I confided this to Richard he was, of course, mortified – he had had no idea what a culture shock it was. In a surprising plot twist, it turned out that Richard… also hated hugs. He was forcing himself to do them because he thought it was just what people did. I’m glad I learned to shake and that Rich and I persevered with our hugs. I’m happy that I normalised it all, because I can see how important physical contact is for human connection.
The stricter Muslim law on this was specifically designed to create barriers against human connection between the genders, but now I cherish that easy bond between all humans. To be tactile, I would argue, is the best way to build a connection. Touch unites us in a way that keeping our distance can’t bridge – ironically, an outstretched palm, a grip of someone else’s flesh, is the physical embodiment of the hand on the heart.
It’s why the handshake, across time and space, symbolises so many positive things: agreement, affection, welcome, acceptance and equality. And why I think the origins of the handshake go back far beyond antiquity, and probably prehistory to before we were even a species.
Recently I stumbled upon some extremely rare footage of the Sentinelese, an uncontacted tribe living on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. The film was taken in 1991 as anthropologist Triloknath Pandit and colleagues were cautiously trying to make contact.
In the footage, I watched as the anthropologists stayed in their boat and sent gifts of coconuts bobbing through the water towards the Sentinelese on the shore. Things were going significantly better than in other reported incidences, in that no one had been shot by an arrow yet, and many of the Sentinelese were coming into the water to collect the coconuts. Then the narrator of the film explained that the Sentinelese have “signalled to the anthropologists to leave”. And when I saw how they did this, I almost fell off my seat.
As a palaeoanthropologist, I knew the implications of the footage and, as a standup comic, I was all too familiar with that sign – it was a favourite of some of my male standup buddies. A tribesman had grabbed his naked penis and literally (not figuratively, like my friends on stage) yanked his hand up and down it repeatedly. He was literally telling the anthropologists to “fuck off”. I recently saw a fellow cyclist in London use it to tell a driver this very same thing.
But I had always imagined that this was a relatively modern gesture. The implication was extraordinary: if people who are uncontacted are doing something that is universally understood among those of us in the rest of the world, it strongly implies that a sign or behaviour isn’t a recent development.
The voluntary isolation of the Sentinelese gives us an insight into a world before any kind of globalisation. They didn’t adopt their behaviour, traditions and mannerisms from a popular sitcom or band, nor did their ancestors adopt it from a missionary, an explorer or an oil prospector. It is very possible that this behaviour is not “learned” at all, but embedded into their DNA – the same DNA they share with that furious British cyclist.
The Sentinelese made such an impression on me that when I began investigating the handshake, my first question was: do uncontacted tribes shake hands? Remarkably, evidence exists for handshakes upon first contact with a number of tribes. There is a National Geographic photograph, and silent film footage, of a handshake that took place in 1928 in New Guinea. It captures Ivan Champion, a member of the 1928 US Sugar Cane Expedition, and a man who is (presumably) a member of an uncontacted tribe.
David Attenborough tells a story about searching for birds of paradise, also in New Guinea, in 1957, and getting into a potentially hairy situation with a tribe who sound like they might have been previously uncontacted. They charged at him while brandishing spears and knives and he averted the situation by simply sticking his hand out and wishing them a “Good afternoon”. They pumped his hand up and down. I’ve faced neighbours in England with less skill.
These handshakes are fascinating and, taken together, suggest that some uncontacted tribes intrinsically know what a handshake is without having previously come across one in the outside world – a remarkable finding. Of course, these handshakes may be behavioural mirroring (when people unconsciously imitate each other’s behaviour and movements, often to build rapport), or perhaps the tribes either weren’t, in fact, uncontacted or had picked up this behaviour from other neighbouring groups who had contact with the outside world.
However, the anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt describes encountering handshaking among tribes in New Guinea who had only made contact with the outside world some seven months earlier. The Kukukuku and Woitapmin tribes, as well as patrol officers, confirmed to him that they had always practised handshaking and that it didn’t originate post-contact. Additionally, there are reports of handshakes with newly contacted tribes in a completely different geographical location, the Amazon, in the 1970s. So we have similar reports from two different places – which also happen to be the two places in the world with the highest number of uncontacted tribes. It was enough for this anthropologist to start thinking that the handshake might be much older than we were assuming. So did Neanderthals shake hands?
The presence of Neanderthal DNA in our own genomes is evidence that we certainly mated with them, so a handshake seems pretty banal by prehistoric inter-species standards. While rock and cave art do provide evidence of an obsession with hands on the part of early Homo sapiens, nothing depicts an actual handshake in progress. And yet I would argue that the handshake is not just prehistoric, but that it has a deep evolutionary history – that it is older than our species and that, yes, the Neanderthals did shake hands. In fact, I would say the handshake is at least 7m years old.
How can I be so cautiously confident? Good old evolutionary biology. If you and all your many siblings had ginger hair or blue eyes or, say, sickle cell anaemia, one might be forgiven for jumping to conclusions about the hair colour, eye colour and genetic mutations of your parents. But when we scale up from just looking at siblings and start looking across much bigger sections of the evolutionary tree, we start getting some fascinating insights into the DNA. Here’s the thing: if a morphology or behaviour is exhibited in a few related species, we tend to assume that the last common ancestor of those species also exhibited that behaviour. Our closest living relatives are the chimps and their sister species the bonobos – and, lo and behold, the primatologist Dr Cat Hobaiter was able to show that chimps and bonobos shake hands.
These chimp and bonobo handshakes are typically really fingers overlapping, so “finger-shaking” might be more accurate, though palm overlapping has also been observed. And not just that: through painstaking observational work, Hobaiter was able to show the handshake was linked to positive social interactions. It seemed to be deployed in various touchy-feely, friendly scenarios, as well as in some kinds of greetings.
Remarkably, Hobaiter also describes two chimps fighting ferociously and then coming together to sheepishly shake hands. When I spoke to her, she apologised for anthropomorphising, but said that she was struck by how similar it looked to two human teenagers begrudgingly shaking hands after a fight. And so, rather endearingly, it appears that the handshake is utilised by our closest living relatives post-conflict to mean “let’s make up”.
The last common ancestor of chimps, bonobos and Homo sapiens lived around 7m years ago. It’s reasonable to assume that not only did they shake hands, but so did all that ancestor’s descendants – including the Neanderthals. The handshake is, therefore, bloody old.
So, if the handshake has been around for so long, what next for it? I don’t think we’re witnessing the death of the handshake. I think what we’re seeing is, at most, a disruption. Time and again we’ve seen the handshake and other haptic greetings disappear as a result of disease, epidemics and pandemics. And yet it’s never gone for good. Something that might make a difference, though, would be a genuine challenger – a gesture and greeting which provides the same benefits as the handshake, but without the risk of catching a deadly disease. In the interests of giving them a fair hearing, I have rounded up some possible alternatives to the handshake: fist bump; elbow bump; the Wakanda handshake (taken from the film Black Panther, fists are clenched, arms crossed across the chest. Apparently, the salute was partly inspired by American Sign Language for hug or love); the Regency bow or curtsey; the Japanese bow; the Black Power salute; the “selfie” (shaking hands with yourself); jazz hands…
Of course, if this were really a competition to find a challenger to the handshake, it would be hard to pick a winner. Not because there is not much exceptional talent in the game, but because nothing compares to last year’s winner, which also won every year’s competition for the past 7m years. No wonder nothing matches up.
The handshake has its disadvantages. It’s sometimes freighted with expectation and pointless rules. Getting it wrong can feel embarrassing. But if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that touch really matters – and our impulse to do it likely comes from deep within our DNA. As a basic unit of touch, nothing works as well as the handshake – it allows us to transmit chemosignals, build trust, gesture quickly and universally, and send positive signals of agreement, unity and acceptance.
Anything as deeply entrenched in our culture, biology and probably DNA as the handshake is, quite frankly, going nowhere. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a difficult journey – I remember how my first hugs and handshakes with men were surreal. I suspect that something slightly similar is in store for you, my friends. Those first few handshakes you embark on post-Covid will be memorable sensory experiences. But you will be ecstatic about them.
When this is over, I’m going to be the weirdo not just shaking strangers’ hands, but holding their hands tightly for the entire meeting. Some of us waited a long time to shake hands, and spent a long time looking for alternatives. And I’m telling you – nothing lives up to the handshake.
The Handshake: A Gripping History by Ella Al-Shamahi is published by Profile Books on 25 March at £10.99. Buy a copy for £9.29 at guardianbookshop.com
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: After Covid, will we ever shake hands again? | Life and style