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Trending Science: Ape fossils reveal how humans learned to walk

Bones of an ape that lived nearly 12 million years ago shed light on how humans first stood up.

Fundamental Research icon Fundamental Research

Walking upright is the very symbol of human evolution. The science community believes our upright posture originated in Africa about 6 million years ago. A new discovery published in the journal ‘Nature’ is now pushing the timeline for bipedal walking back a few millions of years. It’s also moving the origins out of Africa.

Transforming the evolutionary origins of two-legged walking

According to the study, a newly discovered species of ape in southern Germany called Danuvius guggenmosi may have been walking on 2 feet about 11.6 million years ago in Europe. The researchers excavated over 15 000 vertebrate bones. They unearthed the jaw bones, femurs, vertebrae and foot bones of four fossils – a male, two females and a juvenile. “The finds in southern Germany are a milestone in palaeoanthropology, because they raise fundamental questions about our previous understanding of the evolution of the great apes and humans,” lead author Madelaine Böhme, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, told the ‘BBC’.

Oldest-known example of upright walking

To date, the earliest fossil evidence for walking upright was understood to be 6 million years. However, the fossils of this previously unknown primate suggest that apes were exhibiting human-like characteristics long before then. Danuvius blended attributes of humans with those of apes. “Danuvius combines the hindlimb-dominated bipedality of humans with the forelimb-dominated climbing typical of living apes,” explained David Begun, a University of Toronto palaeoanthropologist and study co-author. It walked upright on 2 legs and used all 4 limbs to climb trees. It was about a metre tall and weighed less than most of today’s apes. Males measured about 31 kg and females around 18. “For the first time, we were able to investigate several functionally important joints, including the elbow, hip, knee and ankle, in a single fossil skeleton of this age,” said Böhme. “It was astonishing for us to realise how similar certain bones are to humans, as opposed to great apes.”

How bipedal walking evolved

“Danuvius changes the why, when and where of evolution of bipedality dramatically,” Böhme told ‘Reuters’. “Our last common ancestor with great apes doesn’t look like a chimp, or any living great ape. He may have looked like Danuvius.” “Danuvius offers a new way of looking at the evolution of bipedalism,” added Begun. “Before Danuvius, we did not have a model of the evolution of bipedalism that included key elements of both ape and human posture and locomotion.” As long as gaps in our knowledge remain, how we came to walk on two feet in the first place will continue to remain a hotly debated issue. Our ancestors’ bones will provide clues in answering many of the key questions about the evolution of human species.


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