ramidus_to_erectus2

Hands-free in the Pliocene

In the previous post we discovered the anatomical changes associated with bipedalism in early hominids and the relationship of the selection of this feature with climate change. Is bipedalism a trait that makes us human? What are the advantages over other quadruped animals?

WHAT IS THE PLIOCENE?

Since the origin of our planet, geologists have divided time into different divisions of millions of years: the eons (Archean, Proterozoic and Phanerozoic), which in turn are divided into different eras. The Phanerozoic (from 542 Ma to present) is divided into three eras, from oldest to newest: Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. In this link you can see  the major biological milestones for each epoch.

cenozoic
Cenozoic detail. Full image

The Miocene is the time when the hominoids appear, (Proconsul is the most famous genus) and in the Pliocene appears, among others, Australopithecus. Homo sapiens do not appear until the Holocene, a blink in the planet’s history, as they say.

Usually the climate changes that have been happening throughout the history of Earth, represent extinction, diversification and new species, and so does our evolutionary branch: many authors relate climatic fluctuations with milestones of hominins. If you are interested in this interactive you can investigate this issue.

slideshow_plate_tectonics_02
Position of the continents in the Miocene after the collision between the Eurasian and Indica plates. (Photo by The Burgess Shale)

One of these climatic changes (caused by the collision of the Eurasian and Indica tectonic plates,  giving rise to the Himalayas and changing wind currents) was responsible for the disappearance of large tracts of rainforest, giving way to a landscape shrub or savanna. Hominoids who stayed in the forest, led to the current nonhuman apes, while those who occupied the savannatrees mosaic led to hominins, our lineage. What are the advantatges of bipedalism in that landscape?

ADVANTATGES OF BIPEDALISM

  • Handsfree: the two free limbs can be used to transport food and offspring. You can reach fruit trees without stepping on them and later, will allow the manipulation of tools, hunting and cultural events.
  • Less heat: without offering the entire back surface to the sun, and separating the body from the hot ground, it allows cope better with high temperatures and survive with less water.
  • More energy: walking on two legs consumes less energy than walking on four. This allow walking longer distances with less food, which is important in an environment where you have to flee or find food constantly. We have a great strength to walk or run many kilometers compared with quadrupeds.
  • Best visual field: the eyes have a higher position and can detect potential predators over shrubs or drive them away with stones if necessary. It is also easier to spot food sources.
  • Intimidating appearance: upright posture appears to increase body size and can avoid confrontations with certain predators.
  • Better communication: the insertion of the skull with the spine, leaving enough space for the vocal cords allow, over time, the appearance of articulate speech. Although other apes had the same brain capacity to talk, morphologically it is impossible because of the structure of their vocal apparatus.
Algunas ventajas del bipedismo. (Ilustración de Karen Carr Studios)
Some advantatges of bipedalism. (Illustration by Karen Carr Studios)

DISADVANTAGES OF BIPEDALISM

  • Low speed: for short distances, running on two legs is slower than four, in case of an unexpected attack by a predator, the chance to escape decreases.
  • Back pain: the stress that suffers our spine and legs throughout life due to upright posture, is the most likely cause of back pain, knees, hips and feet that suffer a large part of the world population.
  • Birth complications: our birth canal is narrower due to the structure of our pelvis, plus the large size of the skull of the young, it causes more pain and complications in human births compared to other mammalian quadrupeds.
Canal del parto en una mujer (izquierda) y una chimpancé (derecha). Foto tomada de Jose Mª Bermúdez de Castro
Birth canal in a woman (left) and a chimpanzee (right). (Photo taken of Jose Mª Bermúdez de Castro)

Thus, despite the disadvantages, in a warm environment, rather arid and with few trees for shelter from predators, who survived were bipedal hominoids. We consider our bipedalism as a trait that makes us human, as it is unique among animals: only birds are fully bipedal -like some extinguished dinosaurs, and except the penguin -with clumsy gait, their spine is not perpendicular to the ground, like ours.

REFERENCES

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