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Becoming Human: The Evolution of Walking Upright

Walking on two legs distinguished the first hominids from other apes, but scientists still aren't sure why our ancestors became bipedal

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A trio of upright walkers: Lucy (middle) and Australopithecus sediba (left and right). Image: Compiled by Peter Schmid courtesy of Lee R. Berger, University of the Witwatersrand/Wikicommons

Welcome to Hominid Hunting’s new series “Becoming Human,” which will periodically examine the evolution of the major traits and behaviors that define humans, such as big brains, language, technology and art. Today, we look at the most fundamental human characteristic: walking upright. 

Walking upright on two legs is the trait that defines the hominid lineage: Bipedalism separated the first hominids from the rest of the four-legged apes. It took a while for anthropologists to realize this. At the turn of the 20th century, scientists thought that big brains made hominids unique. This was a reasonable conclusion since the only known hominid fossils were of brainy species–Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

That thinking began to change in the 1920s when anatomist Raymond Dart discovered the skull known as the Taung Child in South Africa. Taung Child had a small brain, and many researchers thought the approximately three-million-year-old Taung was merely an ape. But one feature stood out as being human-like. The foramen magnum, the hole through which the spinal cord leaves the head, was positioned further forward under the skull than an ape’s, indicating that Taung held its head erect and therefore likely walked upright. In the 1930s and 1940s, further fossil discoveries of bipedal apes that predated Neanderthals and H. erectus (collectively called australopithecines) helped convince anthropologists that walking upright came before big brains in the evolution of humans. This was demonstrated most impressively in 1974 with the finding of Lucy, a nearly complete australopithecine skeleton. Although Lucy was small, she had the anatomy of a biped, including a broad pelvis and thigh bones that angled in toward the knees, which brings the feet in line with the body’s center of gravity and creates stability while walking.

In more recent decades, anthropologists have determined that bipedalism has very ancient roots. In 2001, a group of French paleoanthropologists unearthed the seven-million-year-old Sahelanthropus tchadensis in Chad. Known only from a skull and teeth, Sahelanthropus‘ status as an upright walker is based solely on the placement of its foramen magnum, and many anthropologists remain skeptical about the species’ form of locomotion. In 2000, paleoanthropologists working in Kenya found the teeth and two thigh bones of the six-million-year-old Orrorin tugenensis. The shape of the thigh bones confirms Orrorin was bipedal. The earliest hominid with the most extensive evidence for bipedalism is the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus. In 2009, researchers announced the results of more than 15 years of analysis of the species and introduced the world to a nearly complete skeleton called Ardi.

Although the earliest hominids were capable of upright walking, they probably didn’t get around exactly as we do today. They retained primitive features—such as long, curved fingers and toes as well as longer arms and shorter legs—that indicate they spent time in trees. It’s not until the emergence of H. erectus 1.89 million years ago that hominids grew tall, evolved long legs and became completely terrestrial creatures.

While the timeline of the evolution of upright walking is well understood, why hominids took their first bipedal steps is not. In 1871, Charles Darwin offered an explanation in his book The Descent of Man: Hominids needed to walk on two legs to free up their hands. He wrote that “…the hands and arms could hardly have become perfect enough to have manufactured weapons, or to have hurled stones and spears with a true aim, as long as they were habitually used for locomotion.” One problem with this idea is that the earliest stone tools don’t show up in the archaeological record until roughly 2.5 million years ago, about 4.5 million years after bipedalism’s origin.

But after the unveiling of Ardi in 2009, anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University revived Darwin’s explanation by tying bipedalism to the origin of monogamy. I wrote about Lovejoy’s hypothesis for EARTH magazine in 2010. Lovejoy begins by noting that Ardi’s discoverers say the species lived in a forest. As climatic changes made African forests more seasonal and variable environments, it would have become harder and more time-consuming for individuals to find food. This would have been especially difficult for females raising offspring. At this point, Lovejoy suggests, a mutually beneficial arrangement evolved: Males gathered food for females and their young and in return females mated exclusively with their providers. To be successful providers, males needed their arms and hands free to carry food, and thus bipedalism evolved. This scenario, as with all bipedalism hypotheses, is really hard to test. But earlier this year, researchers offered some support when they found that chimpanzees tend to walk bipedally when carrying rare or valuable foods.

Another theory considers the efficiency of upright walking. In the 1980s, Peter Rodman and Henry McHenry, both at the University of California, Davis, suggested that hominids evolved to walk upright in response to climate change. As forests shrank, hominid ancestors found themselves descending from the trees to walk across stretches of grassland that separated forest patches. The most energetically efficient way to walk on the ground was bipedally, Rodman and McHenry argued. (Full disclosure: Rodman was my graduate school advisor.) In 2007, researchers studying chimpanzees on treadmills determined that the chimps required 75 percent more energy while walking than two-legged humans, providing some evidence that bipedalism has advantages.

Numerous other explanations for bipedalism have been outright rejected, such as the idea that our ancestors needed to stand up to see over tall grass or to minimize the amount of the body exposed to the sun in a treeless savannah. Both ideas were debunked by the fact that the first hominids lived in at least partially wooded habitats.

Although difficult to study, the question of why bipedalism evolved might come closer to an answer if paleoanthropologists dig up more fossils of the earliest hominids that lived seven million to six million years ago. Who knows how many species of bipedal apes they’ll find. But each new discovery has the potential to fundamentally change how we understand the origins of one of our most distinctive traits.

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