Feet of the ancients

Cast of Footprints, Laetoli Museum
Cast of footprints, probably of Au. afrensis, from the famous trackway of Laetoli in Tanzania (Photo credit: GIRLintheCAFE)

Much of what palaeoanthropologists have surmised about the evolution of humans and their hominin forebears has come from fossils of their heads. Crania, jaws and teeth can reveal a lot about human ancestors and related species, and inevitably smart modern humans would dearly like to know how brainy and clever they were and when possible intellectual changes, such as the acquisition of language, might have taken place. But only the rest of the body gives us clues about what they did and potentially might have done. If, like Darwin, and following his lead Frederick Engels (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour/index.htm), we believe that the single most important development was adopting an upright gait and thereby freeing the hands to manipulate the world, then fossil hands and feet are of very high importance. Yet they are among the most fragile appendages consisting of a great many separate bones, each being small enough to be transported by flowing water once soft tissues decay and a corpse falls apart. And they are easily bitten off by scavengers.  Heads are a lot bigger, heavier and robust, and being round and smooth, quite difficult for, say, a hyena or porcupine to gnaw. Moreover, disaggregated hominin foot and hand bones are not easy to recognise in fossiliferous sediments, especially if they have been scattered far and wide: the big prize being heads jaws and teeth, professional hominin hunters become expert at spotting them, but not necessarily the other 80% of skeletons.

Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus)
Artists reconstruction of female Ardipithecus ramidus (Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

So, the discovery of hominin hands or feet is a rare cause for celebration. A new partial foot has turned up in the hominin ‘bran-tub’ that is the Afar depression of NE Ethiopia (Haile-Selassie, Y. et al. 2012. A new hominin foot from Ethiopia shows multiple Pliocene bipedal adaptations. Nature, v. 483, p. 565-569) and has caused quite a stir. It is significantly different from the few other feet known from the hominin record. Moreover, it adds a sixth design to those already know, leaving out those of chimps, taken as likely to be similar to those of our shared common ancestor, Homo sapien, Neanderthals and H. erectus whose feet are much the same. While being easily distinguished from the feet of Homo species, those of australopithecines are sufficiently like them in basic morphology to suggest that Au. africanus and sediba both walked the savannas as upright as we do. But one of the earlier hominins, Ardipithecus ramidus, also from Afar but dated at more than 4 Ma, has provided an almost complete foot whose geometry , including a spayed-out, short big toe capable of grasping, almost certainly indicates that the creature was equally at home in trees as it was on the ground. Ardipithecus walked upright, but probably could not run as its gait placed the side of the foot on the ground, much like a chimpanzee, instead of proceeding heel-to-toe as we do (Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature, v. 483, p. 550-551). The new find seems similar, although better adapted for upright walking. Yet no other body parts have been found so it has not been assigned to a species, though it almost certainly represents a new one. The excitement concerns its age, which at 3.4 Ma is within the time range of Australopithecus afarensis, a family of which left the famous trackway at Laetoli in Tanzania whose foot prints strongly suggest full adaptation to human-like gait: walking, running and abandonment of partially habitual life in the trees.

It seems therefore that the multiplicity of co-existing hominins from 2 million years ago to very recently existed much further back in their evolutionary history. That raises several possibilities, among which is the possibility of repeated evolution of bipedality, hinted at by some similarities to the feet of modern gorillas in that of the newly found foot. Another implication is that simply being able to walk upright did not lead quickly to a tool-making ability because the earliest stone tools capable of cutting through meat, skin and sinew did not arise until 2.6 Ma. Like fossils of feet, those of hominin hands are extremely rare. The first crucial evidence of a hand with potential to manipulate objects delicately and with purpose is around 2 Ma, with the astonishingly well preserved hand of a young Au. sediba unearthed in South Africa (http://earth-pages.co.uk/2011/10/12/another-candidate-for-earliest-direct-human-ancestor/). Frustratingly, the 2.6 Ma tools are not associated with fossil hominins, and the Au. sediba skeletons had no tools.

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