Did we start walking because there were few trees? If you look at chimpanzees, it’s not so clear

Obviously, many consider it true. Our ancestors moved from the jungle to the savannah, where the distance between trees is greater and you are easier prey for predators. This different environment forced our “na” to walk on two legs, which is simply a more efficient way of moving on land. That could have been the case, but new research shows that the explanation isn’t as clear as it seems.

In the absence of fossil evidence supporting or opposing this hypothesis, biologists often investigate how related organisms might behave in similar situations. So is Rhianna Drummond-Clarke of the University of Kent. They find a chimpanzee colony in western Tanzania with an ideal living environment: half jungle, half savanna. Would these animals walk on two legs more in the savanna than in the jungle?

Chimpanzees in Wadi Isa feeding on a tree. image of the researchers.Image by R. Drummond-Clarke/GMERC

They studied chimpanzees from a distance of 15 months and assessed their postures: static or mobile, and whether they did so on four legs or two. It was found that chimpanzees no longer walked on two legs in open terrain than they did in the forest. It’s even been reversed before.

The life of the tree remains useful

Moreover, another hypothesis was also shown to be false: as the landscape became more open, these chimpanzees did not move much on the ground. Instead, they stayed longer in the same tree. Large, productive trees with a wide crown of branches, as in the photo, are sure to be the perfect place for great apes. They are safe from predators on the ground and there is enough food for a longer period of time, saving on the number of tiring trips over the ground to the next tree.

And in that tree they moved remarkably on two legs. The researchers note that this is an effective way to grab the fruit at the end of a branch. Bipedality could very well have arisen as an adaptation to tree life.

Hypotheses remain, but these observations gave the researchers another clue. The fossils we have, especially the dental wear, seem to indicate that our ancestors ate a lot more food from trees than you would expect from savannah walkers. If chimpanzee strategy in Wadi Isa indicates how primates dealt with moving to the savanna, early humans may have spent a significant amount of time in the same tree before moving to the next. Whether you can learn to walk in a tree like early humans can no doubt be debated for a long time to come. But it’s at least as likely that their ancestors transitioned to soil life in a more upright fashion than previously thought, which is an intriguing possibility at least.

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