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We take walking for granted because it is so simple. But have you ever wondered who invented walking and how the concept came about?
Who Invented Walking?
A chimp was most likely the first person to walk on two legs. Turkana Boy, a Homo erectus, was the first person to walk upright like us. He lived in Africa approximately million years ago.
Turkana Boy’s bones show that he walked upright, but we don’t know if he did it all the time or just some of the time. It would have been a significant advantage for him if he had done it all the time. He could have carried things with his hands and had better balance and a better view of his surroundings.
This is an important question because many anthropologists regard bipedalism, or walking on two legs, as a distinguishing feature of “hominins,” or modern humans and their ancestors. However, it is difficult to provide a simple answer because bipedalism did not appear overnight. It underwent a slow evolution that began many millions of years ago.
Of course, no video exists of the first person to walk upright. So, how do scientists attempt to answer questions about human movement in the distant past? Fortunately, the shape of a creature’s bones and how they fit together can reveal how that body moved when it was alive. And anthropologists could find other evidence in the landscape that indicates how ancient people started walking.
The first fossils of an unknown hominin were discovered in Ethiopia in 1994. The anthropologists who discovered the remains dubbed the new find, an adult female individual named Ardipithecus ramidus, “Ardi.” Over the next ten years, more than 100 fossils from Ardi’s species were discovered and dated to between 4.2 million and 4.4 million years old.
When scientists examined this collection of bones, they discovered features that indicate bipedalism. The foot, for example, had a structure that allowed for toe push-off, which four-legged apes do not have. The shape of the pelvic bones, the position of the legs under the pelvis, and the way the leg bones fit together all suggested upright walking. Ardi may not have walked exactly like we do today, but bipedalism as the normal mode of movement appears to be characteristic of these fossils dating back 4.4 million years.
Anthropologists had already discovered a nearly 40%-complete skeleton of a hominin species that lived in Ethiopia about a million years after Ardi. Because it resembled other fossils found in southern and eastern Africa, they named it Australopithecus afarensis, which means “southern ape from the afar region.” Because this individual was female, they nicknamed it “Lucy” after a popular Beatles song at the time.
More than 300 individuals from this species have been added to the group, and researchers now know a lot about Lucy and her relatives.
Lucy had a partially preserved but well-preserved pelvis, which anthropologists used to determine her gender. The pelvis and upper leg bones fit together in a way that indicated she walked on two legs upright. There were no preserved foot bones, but later discoveries of A. afarensis does include feet and denotes bipedal walking.
Scientists discovered other remarkable evidence for how Lucy’s species moved at the Laetoli site in Tanzania, in addition to fossil remains. Anthropologists discovered fossilized footprints in what had once been a wet volcanic ash surface beneath a layer of volcanic ash dating back 3.6 million years.
The tracks extend for nearly 100 feet, with 70 individual prints indicating the presence of at least three people walking upright on two feet. Given the age, the creators were most likely Australopithecus afarensis.
The tracks show that these hominins walked on two legs, but their gait appears to be distinct from ours today. Laetoli, on the other hand, provides solid evidence for bipedalism 3.5 million years ago.
A hominin with an anatomy so similar to ours that we can say it walked like us didn’t appear in Africa until 1.8 million years ago. Homo erectus was the first to have long legs and short arms, allowing us to walk, run, and move around the Earth’s landscapes as we do today. Homo erectus also had a much larger brain than earlier bipedal hominins and created and used Acheulean implements, which were stone tools. Anthropologists consider Homo erectus to be a close relative of our own genus, Homo.
As you can see, the development of human walking took a very long time. It first appeared in Africa over 4.4 million years ago, long before tool-making.
What caused hominins to walk upright? Perhaps it allowed them to see predators better or run faster, or perhaps the environment changed and there were fewer trees to climb like earlier hominins.
In any case, humans and their ancestors started walking very early in their evolution. Even though bipedalism predated tool-making, an upright posture freed the hands to make and use tools, which eventually became one of the distinguishing features of humans like us.
That’s all there is to it! Think about the long history of walking and how it has helped us survive and thrive as a species the next time you go for a walk.
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