Brain size and the ability to walk upright efficiently are two of the main attributes that separate humanity from the apes. Now researchers say learning to walk millions years ago was not without its trials.
A re-examination of anklebones from early hominids indicates their gait was not as stable as previous research suggested.
They were knock-kneed.
A group of species known as robust australopithecines lived about 2 million years ago. Compared to us, they had larger teeth and stronger chewing muscles, a stouter skull with a smaller brain.
Their feet were thought to be very much like ours, suggesting they had mastered bipedalism.
"We noticed that in the specimens of robust australopithecines, there were characteristics of the anklebone that would have affected its bipedal locomotion," said Gary Schwartz, an Arizona State University anthropologist. "By looking at the location where the shin bone rides across the anklebone, we found that the shin bones would have been angled inward."
Human ancestors go back as far as 6 million years, fossils show. The genus Homo arose at least 1.8 million years ago, scientists believe, when australopithecines likely evolved into human ancestors known as Homo habilis, which had larger brains but never grew larger than a 12-year-old child of today.
Schwartz and Dan Gebo from Northern Illinois University compared the ancient anklebones of various species with those of today's gorillas, chimps and people.
The results support the idea that bipedalism evolved only once.
"The skeletal modifications associated with bipedalism represent a phenomenal reorganization of one's anatomy," Schwartz said. "It is unlikely that it could have evolved independently in multiple hominin lineages."
But that doesn't mean the transition was smooth.
"Think of the robust australopithecines as having developed a variation on the theme of bipedalism," Schwartz said. "Undoubtedly, it was not as efficient as the way we walk today, but it might have conferred some other evolutionary advantages."
The researchers have no idea how being knock-kneed might have been an advantage, but they plan to explore the question next.
The finding will be detailed in the April 2006 edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.