Researchers discover why humans began walking upright

Most of us walk and carry items in our hands every day. These are seemingly simple activities that the majority of us don’t question. But an international team of researchers, including Brian Richmond at the George Washington University, have discovered that human bipedalism, or walking upright, may have originated millions of years ago as an adaptation to carrying scarce, high-quality resources. This latest research was published in this month’s “Current Biology.”

The team of researchers from the U.S., England, Japan and Portugal investigated the behavior of modern-day chimpanzees as they competed for food resources, in an effort to understand what ecological settings would lead a large ape – one that resembles the 6 million-year old ancestor we shared in common with living chimpanzees – to walk on two legs.

“These chimpanzees provide a model of the ecological conditions under which our earliest ancestors might have begun walking on two legs,” said Dr. Richmond, an author of the study and associate professor of anthropology at GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “Something as simple as carrying—an activity we engage in every day—may have, under the right conditions, led to upright walking and set our ancestors on a path apart from other apes that ultimately led to the origin of our kind.”

The research findings suggest that chimpanzees switch to moving on two limbs instead of four in situations where they need to monopolize a resource, usually because it may not occur in plentiful supply in their habitat, making it hard for them to predict when they will see it again. Standing on two legs allows them to carry much more at one time because it frees up their hands. Over time, intense bursts of bipedal activity may have led to anatomical changes that in turn became the subject of natural selection where competition for food or other resources was strong.

Two studies were conducted by the team in Guinea. The first study was in Kyoto University’s “outdoor laboratory” in a natural clearing in Bossou Forest. Researchers allowed the wild chimpanzees access to different combinations of two different types of nut—the oil palm nut, which is naturally widely available, and the coula nut, which is not. The chimpanzees’ behavior was monitored in three situations: (a) when only oil palm nuts were available, (b) when a small number of coula nuts was available, and (c) when coula nuts were the majority available resource.

When the rare coula nuts were available only in small numbers, the chimpanzees transported more at one time. Similarly, when coula nuts were the majority resource, the chimpanzees ignored the oil palm nuts altogether. The chimpanzees regarded the coula nuts as a more highly-prized resource and competed for them more intensely.

In such high-competition settings, the frequency of cases in which the chimpanzees started moving on two legs increased by a factor of four. Not only was it obvious that bipedal movement allowed them to carry more of this precious resource, but also that they were actively trying to move as much as they could in one go by using everything available – even their mouths.

The second study, by Kimberley Hockings of Oxford Brookes University was a 14-month study of Bossou chimpanzees crop-raiding, a situation in which they have to compete for rare and unpredictable resources. Here, 35 percent of the chimpanzees’ activity involved some sort of bipedal movement, and once again, this behavior appeared to be linked to a clear attempt to carry as much as possible at one time.


Substack subscription form sign up
The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.

8 thoughts on “Researchers discover why humans began walking upright”

  1. I’m glad that someone else complained about the unreadability of “the pale grey text” … PLEASE darken the font !

  2. Re. “When the rare coula nuts were available only in small numbers, the chimpanzees transported more at one time. Similarly, when coula nuts were the majority resource, the chimpanzees ignored the oil palm nuts altogether.”

    How is the second sentence similar to the first? In the first case the chimps grabbed the scarce resource. In the second case the chimps ignored the scarce resource.

    • The palm nut is the unscarse resource to the chimps in the local habitat. The coula nut is the rare resource.
      In either quantity, the chimps were more attracted to the nut they hadn’t seen before. The author chose poor wording in the article that makes it appear that the chimps hadn’t been exposed to the palm nut prior to the experiment.

  3. And no I didn’t read the article past the title. I fear that if I do read it, I might awaken from my religion induced coma. This is not a chance that I am willing to take.

    • I felt the title “RESEARCHERS DISCOVER WHY HUMANS BEGAN WALKING UPRIGHT” was quite misleading.

      No. Researchers express an opinion on one possible reason that humans might have begun walking upright some millions of years ago, based on observations of modern day chimpanzees which walk upright under certain exceptional circumstances, but mostly don’t.

      There has been no real discovery here. This is just speculation and assumptions. If you wanted something pithy for a headline then “RESEARCHERS SPECULATE ON WHY HUMANS BEGAN WALKING UPRIGHT” would more accurately reflect the content of what follows.

      While we’re on the subject Prof. Alice Roberts’s recent documentary on human origins quite elegantly showed that we are not simply evolved to stand up, but to *run* – as shown by our leg and hip bones and musculature, and those of our earliest bipedal ancestors. So perhaps we should have “RESEARCHERS SPECULATE ON WHY HUMANS BEGAN RUNNING AWAY”?

      And while I’m commenting I still find the pale grey text on your website painful to read.

Comments are closed.