By observing wild orangutans, a research team has found that walking on two legs may have arisen in relatively ancient, tree-dwelling apes, rather than in more recent human ancestors that had already descended to the savannah, as current theory suggests.From the press release:
Upright walking, or bipedalism, has long been considered a defining feature of humans and our closest ancestors. One of the most popular explanations, known as the savannah hypothesis, suggests that the ancestors to chimps, gorillas and humans descended from the trees and began walking on the ground on all fours.
Over time, this four-legged gait would have evolved into the "knuckle-walking" that chimps and gorillas still use today and then into upright, two-legged walking in humans.
Paleontologists have conventionally used signs of bipedalism as key criteria for distinguishing early human, or "hominin," fossils from those of other apes. But, this distinction is complicated by recent fossil evidence that some early hominins, including Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), lived in woodland environments, while even earlier forms such as Millennium Man (Orrorin) appear to have lived in the forest canopy and moved on two legs.
Because these ancestors were probably fruit-eaters, as orangutans are, they would have needed a way to navigate the thin, flexible branches at the tree's periphery, where the fruit typically is. Moving on two legs and using their arms primarily for balance, or "hand-assisted bipedalism," may have helped them travel on these branches.
Crompton and his colleagues came to their conclusions by observing wild orangutans in Sumatra, Indonesia. Orangutans spend almost their whole lives in trees, making them useful models for how our ancestors moved around several million years ago.
"Our findings blur the picture even further," said Crompton. "If we're right, it means you can't rely on bipedalism to tell whether you're looking at a human or other ape ancestor. It's been getting more and more difficult for us to say what's a human and what's an ape, and our work makes that much more the case."
Watch a movie of a possible scenario for great ape locomotor diversification.