Study shows changes in anatomy would have made walking easier without reducing muscles for climbing in early hominins

April 3, 2018 by Bob Yirka, Phys.org report
Evolved changes in pelvis shape allow the hamstrings muscles (red) to hyper-extend the hip in humans, but not in apes. Credit: PNAS

An international team of researchers has found evidence that suggests evolutionary changes in anatomy would have made walking more economical without reducing utility of muscles for climbing in early hominins. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes studying bones and fossils from human ancestors and how they fit together to determine their walking and climbing abilities.

How and when early first began walking upright remains a topic of debate among scientists, and research continues to find the answer. In this new effort, the took another look at conventional ideas suggesting that the first hominins to walk upright likely did so extremely awkwardly, as they retained that would allow them to escape enemies by climbing trees. The researchers suggested that if that were the case, those early hominins would not have survived.

To prove their theory, they began by taking a closer look at human gait and comparing the data with how apes and monkeys walk. They noted that the angle at which the leg and meet are different between the species, which means that walking upright for apes and monkeys places a lot of stress on thigh muscles, hamstrings and the knees. A shorter ischium (curved bone at the base of the pelvis) in humans allows for full extension without undue pressure on other leg parts. The net result, the researchers noted, is an ability to walk not only upright, but more efficiently.

The researchers then looked at the anatomy of ancient hominins—going all the way back to Lucy. All of the members of Australopithecus, they noted, had a full range of motion, allowing them to walk upright—even as they conserved traits that allowed them to climb much better than today's humans. The researchers also found that an older hominin known as Ardi, who lived approximately 4.4 million years ago, had pelvic anatomy that allowed for walking upright almost as easily as modern humans, yet still had a long ischium. This, the team claims, shows that early hominins were able to walk upright and climb trees in relatively easy fashion—not clumsily, as others have suggested.

Explore further: Why aren't humans 'knuckle-walkers?'

More information: Elaine E. Kozma et al. Hip extensor mechanics and the evolution of walking and climbing capabilities in humans, apes, and fossil hominins, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1715120115

Abstract
The evolutionary emergence of humans' remarkably economical walking gait remains a focus of research and debate, but experimentally validated approaches linking locomotor capability to postcranial anatomy are limited. In this study, we integrated 3D morphometrics of hominoid pelvic shape with experimental measurements of hip kinematics and kinetics during walking and climbing, hamstring activity, and passive range of hip extension in humans, apes, and other primates to assess arboreal–terrestrial trade-offs in ischium morphology among living taxa. We show that hamstring-powered hip extension during habitual walking and climbing in living apes and humans is strongly predicted, and likely constrained, by the relative length and orientation of the ischium. Ape pelves permit greater extensor moments at the hip, enhancing climbing capability, but limit their range of hip extension, resulting in a crouched gait. Human pelves reduce hip extensor moments but permit a greater degree of hip extension, which greatly improves walking economy (i.e., distance traveled/energy consumed). Applying these results to fossil pelves suggests that early hominins differed from both humans and extant apes in having an economical walking gait without sacrificing climbing capability. Ardipithecus was capable of nearly human-like hip extension during bipedal walking, but retained the capacity for powerful, ape-like hip extension during vertical climbing. Hip extension capability was essentially human-like in Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus, suggesting an economical walking gait but reduced mechanical advantage for powered hip extension during climbing.

Related Stories

Why aren't humans 'knuckle-walkers?'

March 20, 2018

Our closest biological relatives, the African apes, are the only animals that walk on their knuckles; CWRU researchers discovered why

The ascent of man: Why our early ancestors took to two feet

May 24, 2013

A new study by archaeologists at the University of York challenges evolutionary theories behind the development of our earliest ancestors from tree dwelling quadrupeds to upright bipeds capable of walking and scrambling.

Recommended for you

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Apr 03, 2018
Bonobos (Pygmy Chimps, Pan paniscus) walk upright on two feet 40% of the time. Surely the transition is not as great as this article makes out...
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Apr 03, 2018
Bonobos (Pygmy Chimps, Pan paniscus) walk upright on two feet 40% of the time. Surely the transition is not as great as this article makes out...
I dont believe you. Gotta link?
dnorth
not rated yet Apr 04, 2018
Bonobos can walk on two legs for short distances, about 20 metres, and can even carry things in their arms whilst doing so, but their stance and gait is never fully upright. Their knees and hips do not fully straighten as in humans, and their trunks and heads are bent forward, rather than being vertically balanced above their legs, as in humans. (See D'Août, K, et. al. Locomotion in bonobos (Pan paniscus): differences and similarities between bipedal and quadrupedal terrestrial walking, and a comparison with other locomotor modes, Journal of Anatomy 2004 May; 204(5): 353–361. doi: 10.1111/j.0021-8782.2004.00292.x)

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.