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THE APPEARANCE OF BIPEDALISM
AND LARGE BRAIN SIZE IN THE
HOMINID LINE.
Audrey Post

SALT LAKE COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Anth - 1020
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All humans are unique individuals and can be set apart from one another through traits

such as fingerprints, the iris in their eyes, or their different personalities. While these traits make

us unique as individuals, what makes us unique as Homo sapiens and what sets us apart from our

primitive ancestors? About 5 to 8 million years ago in the Miocene era, when the climate began

to cool and the tropical forest began to slowly diminish (Johanson & Edgar, p89). Our primitive

ancestors adapted to this mixed woodland and grassland environment by using bipedal

locomotion, which is one trait that makes us unique in the hominid line (Moalem, p196-197).

Another trait that makes us unique is our large brain size. Through studies of fossils,

paleoanthropologists have discovered that the brain size began to increase about 2.6 million

years ago, perhaps 2 million years after our ancestors walked on two feet (Johanson & Edgar,

p88). Therefore, walking and talking really sets us apart from our primitive ancestors.

Why would natural selection favor bipedalism over quadrupedalism millions of years

ago? Bipedalism has several advantages over quadrupedalism. One advantage was that hands

were freed to forage and carry items for longer distances such as food or babies. With their hands

free, they were able to make and use tools. Standing tall gave them an advantage of viewing

their surroundings for danger. Also bipedal locomotion was useful for walking long distances

and more energy-efficient than quadrupedalism (Jurmain, Kilgore, Trevathan, & Bartelink,

p206).

While there were many advantages to bipedalism, there were also several physical

changes to the body that needed to take place. Paleoanthropologists studied fossils to understand

the anatomical differences and similarities between the early hominids. The biggest changes

discovered anatomically were to the trunk, pelvis, lower limb, and feet (Johanson & Edgar, p86).

Some of the fossils found that paleoanthropologist studied were; Ardi, Lucy, and Taung Child.
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Studying these fossils have given paleoanthropologist a better understanding of how bipedal

locomotion evolved.

The fossil named “Ardi” is a 4.4 million-year-old skeleton from the Ardipithecus ramidus

group which is between the time periods of 4.4 million to 6 million years ago. An interesting

difference found between the “Ardi” fossil and humans today is that “Ardi” had opposable big

toes and flexible hands to help grip the branches on trees (Gibbons). Ardi’s brain size is

estimated between 300 and 350 cm3 which is about 1/3 the brain size of people today and

roughly the size of a chimpanzee’s (Jurmain, p2013 – 2014 & O’Neill). For modern humans the

widest part of the skull is in the temple region and for these early hominids it was below the

brain case (O’Neill). Also the ilium, which is the uppermost and largest bone of the pelvis,

showed signs of bipedal abilities but other parts of the pelvis showed sign more along with our

primitive ancestors (Johanson & Edgar, p86-87).

Another amazing discovery is a skeleton named “Lucy” that’s about 3 million years old

belonging to the Australopithecus afarensis group. Lucy is one of the most complete fossils of

an individual with 40 percent of the skeleton found. The way Lucy’s hip bone, thigh, knee, and

foot are structured suggest early stages of bipedal locomotion. Other features such as long upper

limbs, long curved fingers and toes, ankle joint, and shoulder blade provides evidence that she

spent time in the trees (Susman, p20). Her pelvis is short with the blades rotated inward which

helps with stability while walking on two feet. There were some differences in the pelvis with

modern pelvises such as the flare of the blades (Johanson & Edgar, p87). “Lucy’s” cranium was

in poor condition so it is estimated that the Australopithecus afarensis group had small brain

around 420 cm3 (Jurmain, Kilgore, Trevathan, & Bartelink, p218). The study of “Lucy’s” fossil

suggests that she was bipedal but still relied on the trees similar to chimpanzees (Susman, p20).
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The “Taung Child” is another fossil found of a skull belonging to the Australopithecus

africanus group of a young child estimated to be 2.3 million to 2.8 million years old. The child is

believed to be three or four years old from studying the face and the natural cast of the inside of

the skull. The brain is small, roughly 1/3 the size of modern brain size, similar to the fossil

“Ardi.” The position of the foramen magnum, which is the hole at the base of the skull, reveals

it was located in the position for more upright walking (McHenry). Based on the position of the

foramen magnum it is believed to belong to a bipedal hominid ancestor (Johanson & Edgar,

p.86)

Evidence of bipedal locomotion during the period of the Australopithecus afarensis era

was found in a fossilized footprint in volcanic ash located at Laetoli, Tanzania. This fossilized

impression is roughly 3.6 million years old and is believed to be a member of the

Australopithecus afarensis group. This is because only members of Australopithecus afarensis

fossils have been recovered from the Laetoli area. The footprint shows the heel of the foot struck

the ground first followed by weight to the outside of the foot. Then the weight transferred to the

ball of the foot and finally ended with the great toe. The impression also reveals the great toe is

not divergent which is similar to footprint made among people today. Further studies show there

is an arch to the foot which is found in bipedal walking (Johanson & Edgar, p.87).

Through the study of fossils, paleoanthropologists have been able to see the major bone

changes that occurred as our primitive ancestors become bipedal. The pelvis became shorter and

broader which allowed the hip muscles to be on the sides to give greater support of the trunk

when walking. The femur is angled inward and positioned beneath the body helping to make

bipedal locomotion more fluid and less side-to-side. The foot adapted to bipedal walking by

aligning the great toe with the other toes, losing its opposable ability. The foramen magnum
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changed to a more forward position allowing the skull to sit at the top of the spinal cord instead

of being positioned toward the back of the skull (Johanson & Edgar, p.86). The spine has an S-

curve to keep the trunk centered above the pelvis and the lower limbs are elongated (Jurmain,

Kilgore, Trevathan, & Bartelink, p. 208-209).

Paleoanthropologists have intensively studied fossilized skulls to see how the human

brain has evolved. The hominid brain size doubled during the middle Pleistocene era, which is

between 2 million and 700,000 years ago. The brain size went from 440 cc to more than 900 cc.

Studies found that the increase in the brain size is believed to occur because body size increased

as well as natural selection favored larger brain size. During the later Pleistocene era, which is

between 500,000 to 100,000 years ago, the brain size again increased and increased again from

the later Pleistocene era to present day. Modern Human brains average around 1,350 cc and

have made some significant changes. In the book “From Lucy to Language” it says the changes

to the human skull include “more upward expansion of the frontal bone, a higher and broader

biparietal arch, and a rounding of the occipital bone” (Johanson & Edgar, p80-81).

There has been some debate as which came first - bipedalism or increased brain size.

One theory suggests that our brains grew first because intelligence was required in order for our

primitive ancestors to make the decision to walk upright and out of the forest. Another theory

suggests that bipedalism came first because it freed our hands to make and use tools.

Paleoanthropologists have been able to answer this debate through the studying of fossils. There

is fossil evidence that shows bipedalism occurred roughly 4 million years ago while the brain

size began to increase only 2 million years ago. Also artifacts of tools found dated back to 2.6

million years ago which is clearly after bipedalism was already evolving (Johanson & Edgar,

p88).
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There are benefits to bipedal walking and larger brain size, however, there is also a

disadvantage from these evolutionary adaptations. Dr. Sharon Moalem says the adaptation of the

pelvis to walk upright came with a compromise as well as larger brains. She says “the human

pelvis is twisted in the middle; starts off pretty wide, and is broad from side to side at the birth

canal’s entrance, but gets narrower as it goes on, ending in an exit that presents a pretty tight

squeeze for an infant’s skull.” As the brain evolved and became bigger so did the need for our

skulls to grow which makes it harder to exit the narrow birth canal unlike our primitive

ancestors. Moalem states this is why most of the development of the human brain takes place

after birth (Moalem & Prince, p194-196).

As you can see, bipedalism and large brain size are unique characteristics that really set

us as Homo sapiens apart from our primitive ancestors. At some point in time natural selection

favored walking upright and larger, more complex brains. These changes led to the current state

of humans in their evolutionary cycle, which is why we are the way we are today, and uniquely

human.
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Bibliography

1. Gibbons, Ann. "Did Ardi Really Walk in the Woods?" Science | AAAS Magazine. N.p.,
12 July 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

2. Johanson, Donald C., and Blake Edgar. From Lucy to Language. New York: Simon &
Schuster, 2006. p86-89.

3. Jurmain, Robert, Lynn Kilgore, Wenda Trevathan, and Eric J. Bartelink. Essentials of
physical anthropology, tenth edition. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2013. p206-218

4. McHenry, Henry. “Taung child.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica,
Inc., Sept. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

5. Moalem, Sharon, and Jonathan Prince. Survival of the sickest: a medical maverick
discovers why we need disease. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. p194-197.

6. O'Neil, Denise. "Early Hominin Evolution: Analysis of Early Hominids." Early
Hominin Evolution: Analysis of Early Hominids. N.p., 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

7. Susman, Randall. "The Discovery of Lucy." Calliope Magazine 10.1 (1999): p20.
Web. 20 Mar. 2017.