Homo erectus walked as we do

July 12, 2016, Max Planck Society
1.5-million-year-old footprint shows that Homo erectus' foot anatomies and mechanics were similar to ours. Credit: Kevin Hatala

Fossil bones and stone tools can tell us a lot about human evolution, but certain dynamic behaviours of our fossil ancestors – things like how they moved and how individuals interacted with one another – are incredibly difficult to deduce from these traditional forms of paleoanthropological data. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, along with an international team of collaborators, have recently discovered multiple assemblages of Homo erectus footprints in northern Kenya that provide unique opportunities to understand locomotor patterns and group structure through a form of data that directly records these dynamic behaviours. Using novel analytical techniques, they have demonstrated that these H. erectus footprints preserve evidence of a modern human style of walking and a group structure that is consistent with human-like social behaviours.

Habitual bipedal locomotion is a defining feature of modern humans compared with other primates, and the evolution of this behaviour in our clade would have had profound effects on the biologies of our fossil ancestors and relatives. However, there has been much debate over when and how a human-like bipedal gait first emerged in the hominin clade, largely because of disagreements over how to indirectly infer biomechanics from skeletal morphologies. Likewise, certain aspects of group structure and social behaviour distinguish humans from other primates and almost certainly emerged through major evolutionary events, yet there has been no consensus on how to detect aspects of group behaviour in the fossil or archaeological records.

In 2009, a set of 1.5-million-year-old hominin footprints was discovered at a site near the town of Ileret, Kenya. Continued work in this region by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and an international team of collaborators, has revealed a hominin trace fossil discovery of unprecedented scale for this time period - five distinct sites that preserve a total of 97 tracks created by at least 20 different presumed Homo erectus individuals. Using an experimental approach, the researchers have found that the shapes of these footprints are indistinguishable from those of modern habitually barefoot people, most likely reflecting similar foot anatomies and similar foot mechanics. "Our analyses of these footprints provide some of the only direct evidence to support the common assumption that at least one of our fossil relatives at 1.5 million years ago walked in much the same way as we do today," says Kevin Hatala, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and The George Washington University.

The shapes of the fossil and modern footprints are nearly indistinguishable. Credit: Kevin Hatala

Based on experimentally derived estimates of body mass from the Ileret hominin tracks, the researchers have also inferred the sexes of the multiple individuals who walked across footprint surfaces and, for the two most expansive excavated surfaces, developed hypotheses regarding the structure of these H. erectus groups. At each of these sites there is evidence of several adult males, implying some level of tolerance and possibly cooperation between them. Cooperation between males underlies many of the social behaviours that distinguish modern humans from other primates. "It isn't shocking that we find evidence of mutual tolerance and perhaps cooperation between males in a hominin that lived 1.5 million years ago, especially Homo erectus, but this is our first chance to see what appears to be a direct glimpse of this behavioural dynamic in deep time," says Hatala.

Explore further: 1.5 million-year-old fossil humans walked on modern feet (Video)

More information: Footprints reveal direct evidence of group behavior and locomotion in Homo erectus. DOI: 10.1038/srep28766

Related Stories

New ancestor? Scientists ponder DNA from Siberia

March 24, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- An international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has sequenced ancient mitochondrial DNA from a finger bone found in southern Siberia. The bone is ...

Lucy had neighbors: A review of African fossils

June 6, 2016

If "Lucy" wasn't alone, who else was in her neighborhood? Key fossil discoveries over the last few decades in Africa indicate that multiple early human ancestor species lived at the same time more than 3 million years ago. ...

Predicting human evolution: Teeth tell the story

February 24, 2016

Monash University-led research has shown that the evolution of human teeth is much simpler than previously thought, and that we can predict the sizes of teeth missing from human fossils and those of our extinct close relatives ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CockyChocachubra
Jul 12, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2016
Considering the species managed to leave Africa and colonize Asia/Europe, neither walk mechanics or group dynamics are surprising. But it is *so* good to have evidence!
Science1st
Jul 17, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
jonesdave
1.7 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2016
Considering the species managed to leave Africa and colonize Asia/Europe, neither walk mechanics or group dynamics are surprising. But it is *so* good to have evidence!


Given that the fossils we have, including the remarkably complete 'Nariokotome Boy', suggest that they would have walked precisely as we did, then it is not surprising. As you say, however, it's nice to have further evidence.

https://en.wikipe...kana_Boy

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.