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Keywords:

  • biomechanics;
  • ecology;
  • fossils;
  • hominins;
  • hominoids;
  • locomotion;
  • posture

Abstract

Based on our knowledge of locomotor biomechanics and ecology we predict the locomotion and posture of the last common ancestors of (a) great and lesser apes and their close fossil relatives (hominoids); (b) chimpanzees, bonobos and modern humans (hominines); and (c) modern humans and their fossil relatives (hominins). We evaluate our propositions against the fossil record in the context of a broader review of evolution of the locomotor system from the earliest hominoids of modern aspect (crown hominoids) to early modern Homo sapiens. While some early East African stem hominoids were pronograde, it appears that the adaptations which best characterize the crown hominoids are orthogrady and an ability to abduct the arm above the shoulder – rather than, as is often thought, manual suspension sensu stricto. At 7–9 Ma (not much earlier than the likely 4–8 Ma divergence date for panins and hominins, see Bradley, 2008) there were crown hominoids in southern Europe which were adapted to moving in an orthograde posture, supported primarily on the hindlimb, in an arboreal, and possibly for Oreopithecus, a terrestrial context. By 7 Ma, Sahelanthropus provides evidence of a Central African hominin, panin or possibly gorilline adapted to orthogrady, and both orthogrady and habitually highly extended postures of the hip are evident in the arboreal East African protohominin Orrorin at 6 Ma. If the traditional idea that hominins passed through a terrestrial ‘knuckle-walking’ phase is correct, not only does it have to be explained how a quadrupedal gait typified by flexed postures of the hindlimb could have preadapted the body for the hominin acquisition of straight-legged erect bipedality, but we would have to accept a transition from stem-hominoid pronogrady to crown hominoid orthogrady, back again to pronogrady in the African apes and then back to orthogrady in hominins. Hand-assisted arboreal bipedality, which is part of a continuum of orthograde behaviours, is used by modern orangutans to forage among the small branches at the periphery of trees where the core hominoid dietary resource, ripe fruit, is most often to be found. Derivation of habitual terrestrial bipedality from arboreal hand-assisted bipedality requires fewer transitions, and is also kinematically and kinetically more parsimonious.