The Evolution of Human Walking: How Humans Learned to Walk
For a long time, evolutionary biologists have speculated that walking upright preceded the growth of larger brains in primates. The rationale behind this theory was that the ability to walk on two legs freed up our ancestors’ hands for tool use. This idea was introduced by Charles Darwin, the pioneer of modern evolutionary biology, and has persisted over the years.
Karl Ernst von Baer, a prominent scientist in the early 19th century and a founder of embryology, confidently stated in 1828 that walking upright was a consequence of a more developed brain.
However, a recent study published in Science Advances in 2022 challenges this traditional notion. After observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, researchers propose that our early human ancestors might have adopted bipedalism not primarily to use tools but to navigate through tree branches.
This novel perspective completely contradicts the Savanna Hypothesis, the previous belief that bipedalism evolved as our ancestors left trees’ safety to roam the grassy savannas of ancient Africa.
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According to study co-author Alexander Piel, the shift from forests to open savanna habitats around five million years ago wasn’t the driving force behind bipedal evolution. Instead, trees likely remained crucial, and the search for food-producing trees might have influenced the development of this trait.
Piel and fellow anthropologists conducted the first comprehensive study to scrutinize the Savanna Hypothesis. They closely observed a specific group of chimpanzees called the Issa, who inhabit the savanna-like Issa Valley in western Tanzania. This region reflects the landscape our early human ancestors would have encountered, featuring open savannas and densely packed forests.
Contrary to expectations, the researchers found that the Issa chimpanzees spent as much time in trees as chimpanzees living in dense forests. Despite their more open habitat, the Issa chimps didn’t exhibit significantly more terrestrial behavior.
Over 15 months, the team observed 13 adult chimpanzees and documented their movements, comparing the data with other research. The outcome of their study revealed that the presence of trees did not dictate the amount of time chimps spent on the ground.
While this new theory still requires further rigorous testing, it introduces a captivating perspective on how early human ancestors might have developed. It marks a new chapter in our quest to understand our shared history, shedding light on the complex evolution of bipedalism among primates.