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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 12:30am
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SCIENCE

Modern humans' ancestors coaxed onto two legs by rough terrain, study finds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 5:59am
 

The rugged landscape created by volcanic eruptions and tectonic plate shifts in east and south Africa millions of years ago may be what prompted our human ancestors to start walking on two legs, a study says.

The research, published in the journal Antiquity, challenges the common theory that early hominins - members of the broad human family - were forced onto two feet because climate change reduced the number of trees they could live in.

According to the new hypothesis, it is not why they left the forests, but where they went, that explains the evolution.

"Our research shows that bipedalism may have developed as a response to the terrain, rather than a response to climatically-driven vegetation changes," said study co-author Isabelle Winder of Britain's University of York.

Between six and two million years ago, our ancestors lived exclusively in Africa - mainly in the east and south, where much tectonic activity took place.

Winder and her team compared geological changes with evolution of hominin anatomy over millions of years, and concluded it was likely that our early tree-living ancestors were attracted not to flat plains as widely thought, but rocky outcrops and gorges, which would have offered shelter from predators and made it easier to corner pray.

But rugged terrain also required more upright scrambling and climbing gaits, prompting the emergence of bipedalism.

"For an animal moving on rough ground, the land is made up of lots of small, broken surfaces at different heights and angles. If you use four limbs to carry your weight, the chances are higher that you will be unable to position yourself effectively or that one of your hands or feet will slip," Winder said.

"It is to your advantage if you can balance on just two or three limbs and use the others to steady yourself."

Thus our ancestors' legs came to carry most of their weight, and their hands were used to stabilise and pull the body up rock faces, becoming better at grasping as a result and ultimately enabling an evolutionary leap to tool-making.

"The varied terrain may also have contributed to improved cognitive skills such as navigation and communication abilities," said Winder.

She said the finding answers a question that has stumped scientists for decades: how did our ancestors survive the many predators of Africa when they moved from the trees to the ground?

"This study is the first to successfully explain how our ancestors lived during this period and why they evolved as they did," Winder said.

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