ELI5 why many cultures have developed the practice of carrying large burdens balanced on the head – how is this better than carrying them in the arms?

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It’s quite efficient energy wise for the body as the vast majority of the weight is supported by bones instead of muscle exertion. If you’re carrying a heavy load with your arms in front of you, you are using a lot of arm and back muscles to balance. This could do you harm if done for a long time. With your bones doing the work you can carry the load a lot farther. Another advantage is that the arms are free both for other tasks and for helping with balance.

carrotwax

As has been pointed out it is easier to carry a heavy load that way. The weight is directly over your centre of balance which means you don’t have to add extra effort to keep yourself upright. For heavy loads and long distances this makes the extra lifting effort worth it. It’s also worth noting that other cultures that didn’t do this had other methods of carrying heavy loads while maintaining the centre of balance. For example a yoke over both your shoulders with a bucket on each end. This makes picking the load up easier than putting it on your head and maintains the centre of balance, the disadvantage is that you need more equipment and have to ensure the load is even.

willingly-ignorant

I have lived many years in Zambia and I realised that the reason probably has a lot to do with the beating heat of the sun. Zambia is savannah and grassland, mostly, and if you need to carry a load for a distance, what better way to do it than in such a way that it provides you with a shadow? You might think it doesn’t make much of a difference, since you are only obviously partly in the shade, and not a very cool shade for that matter. But trust me. It does. The sun is merciless most of the year in a totally different way and any protection helps.

LordFondleJoy

If you carry things in your arms you need to engage your arm muscles against gravity and the weight of the objects. That’s very difficult to do for long periods of time. When objects are placed on your head you don’t need to do any active participation in resisting gravity and the weight of the objects. Your body supports the weight passively in the same manner as it supports your bodyweight normally and that can be done for long periods of time without as much fatigue.

GroundPoint8

No torque. It’s directly above your center of gravity, meaning your very efficient spine and legs take on the weight. When you hold something with your arms, not only do you have to lift the weight, but you also need an additional force to pull the object against your body. Honestly, I do this at work sometimes and it is the easiest way to carry some objects to and from high shelves.

majorex64