Chimpanzee study refutes the prevailing theory about the origins of bipedalism

It has long been believed that our prehistoric ancestors began walking on two legs as they moved from the trees to the more open environment of the African savannah. However, a new study of chimpanzees suggests that may not have been the case.

The theory, known as the savannah hypothesis, posits that early hominins lived in the trees as tropical forests receded due to natural climate change from These forests began to venture into the savannah. Since the savanna was a mixture of forest and grassland, the monkeys gradually began to walk upright to better traverse the open spaces.

With all that being said, not everyone fully believes the hypothesis. Among those now questioning this are scientists from University College London, the University of Kent and Duke University in North Carolina, who conducted the latest study.

Over a 15-month period, the researchers observed a group of 13 wild adult chimpanzees living in the Issa Valley in western Tanzania. The ‘savanna mosaic’ landscape of this region is very similar to that of our early ancestors and consists of a mixture of arid, open land and patches of forest. Because chimpanzees are mankind’s closest living relatives, it’s likely that they would adapt to their landscape in much the same way as prehistoric hominins did.

One of the chimpanzees carries her baby on her back as she makes her way through the trees
One of the chimpanzees carries her baby on her back as she makes her way through the trees

Rhianna Drummond Clarke

To disprove the savannah hypothesis, it was found that the Issa chimpanzees spent as much time in the trees as their counterparts living in dense forest environments, and rarely went out into the grasslands. Also, even when walking across open ground, they still tended not to walk upright. In fact, over 85% of biped cases are was was observed when the monkeys were in the trees.

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“Our study suggests that the late Miocene-Pliocene forest retreat about five million years ago and the more open savannah habitats were in fact not a catalyst for the evolution of bipedism,” said Dr. Alex Piel, Co. of University College London – Author of a paper on the study. “Instead, trees likely remained essential to its evolution — with the search for food-producing trees likely being a driver of this trait.”

The paper was published in the magazine this week scientific advances.

Source: University College London via EurekAlert

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