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Keywords:

  • biomechanics;
  • bipedalism;
  • computer modelling;
  • KNM-WT 15000;
  • load-carrying

Abstract

The first unquestionably bipedal early human ancestors, the species Australopithecus afarensis, were markedly different to ourselves in body proportions, having a long trunk and short legs. Some have argued that ′chimpanzee-like′ features such as these suggest a ‘bent-hip, bent-knee’ (BHBK) posture would have been adopted during gait. Computer modelling studies, however, indicate that this early human ancestor could have walked in a reasonably efficient upright posture, whereas BHBK posture would have nearly doubled the mechanical energy cost of locomotion, as it does the physiological cost of locomotion in ourselves. More modern body proportions first appear at around 1.8–1.5 Ma, with Homo ergaster (early African Homo erectus), represented by the Nariokotome skeleton KNM-WT 15000, in which the legs were considerably longer in relation to the trunk than they are in human adults, although this skeleton represents an adolescent. Several authors have suggested that this morphology would have allowed faster, more endurant walking. But during the same period, the archaeological record indicates a sharp rise in distances over which stone tools or raw materials are transported. Is this coincidental, or can load-carrying also be implicated in selection for a more modern morphology? Computer simulations of loaded walking, verified against kinetic data for humans, show that BHBK gait is even more ineffective while load-carrying. However, walking erect, the Nariokotome individual could have carried loads of 10–15% body mass for less cost, relative to body size, than AL 288-1 walking erect but unloaded. In fact, to the extent that our sample of humans is typical, KNM-WT 15000 would have had better mechanical effectiveness in bearing light loads on the back than modern human adults. Thus, selection for effectiveness in load-carrying, as well as in endurant walking, is indeed likely to have been implicated in the evolution of modern body proportions.