Who Invented Walking

Who Invented Walking? How Did Walking Come About?

Walking upright is a distinctly human characteristic; it’s hard to imagine a time when this wasn't so. But millions of years before today, our evolutionary ancestors walked on all fours. Ever wondered how it is that humans came to walk upright the way we do since our closest relatives in the animal kingdom walk so differently? If you want to know the answer to “who invented walking?” and how and when was walking invented? This article tries to answer that difficult question as simply as possible. 

A look at bipedalism

To be bipedal is to walk on two legs like humans learn to do around the first year of their lives. But as natural as it seems to walk, there was a time when walking upright was not a thing. When living things adapted to have long limbs, they walked on all fours. Even today, many animals can only move around using four limbs. 

Although the ability to walk upright on two legs is a significant marker in human evolution, bipedal movement is not exclusive to humans. Some animals can walk on two feet, too, for example, gorillas, bears, kangaroos, ostriches, and the Australian frilled lizard.

As far as locomotion on just two legs is concerned, the Eudibamus reptile is the earliest known bipedal creature1. However, there is still some debate about the extent of its bipedalism.

Some animals that can walk with two legs don't do so 100% of the time because they can walk on all fours too. Also, they do so with a different gait than we do. Humans walk upright in strides (except in cases of disabilities or deformities)—other bipedal mammals waddle or hop. Our distinct gait comes from having shorter arms, the shape of our pelvis, and a curved spine.

Who invented walking the way humans do today?

human walking
Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

To find out, we would need to look back at our evolutionary history. Back to our primate ancestors, the Hominins. They lived millions of years ago, and of course, millions of years ago, there weren't lots of ways to preserve information. So how does science figure it out? Scientists study fossils through a series of tests and observations that yield valuable information.

Quick fact: What is a fossil? 

Fossils are preserved remains or traces of the remains of long-dead organisms. They are not the remains of the animal itself because the process of fossilization turns them to rock.

Human evolution and walking

human evolution
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

Scientists believe that present-day humans, Homo sapiens, evolved from a lineage of primates that are now extinct. We first appeared on earth about 300,000 years ago and are the only living members of the hominin8, the human tribe.

You must have heard that humans evolved from apes in the theory of evolution. Scientists have indeed uncovered undeniable similarities between man and apes, whether ancient or modern.

The first hominin, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, marked the breakaway of the human genome from the last shared ancestor with great apes and chimpanzees7. From that first hominin, the tribe underwent evolution spanning millions of years, and one of the key adaptations that led to modern humans is human walking.

The history of human evolution is not entirely linear4, and many times, different human species existed, co-existed, and may have even intermarried. There are many different species in the human lineage, so we look at just the hominins that best provide chronological information on our kind of bipedalism.  

Of all our extinct ancestors, who invented walking?

Orrorin tugenensis

Evidence of bipedalism was observed in the Orrorin tugenensis hominin species fossils9. It existed over 6 million years ago, and its fossils were discovered in central Kenya. Scientists found only a few fossils, but they provided some valuable information.

This creature had femurs similar to that of modern humans, and that indicated bipedal movement. However, we still do not know precisely how often they walked on their two feet.

Ardipithecus ramidus

Beginning in 1994 and spanning several decades, scientists discovered several fossilized skeletal remains of a now-extinct primate species in Ethiopia and Tanzania. They called them the  “Ardipithecus ramidus” and determined they lived about 4.2 million years ago5.

The Ardi species' remains showed a foot structure that allowed it to have the kind of toe push-off that humans have today. Four-legged apes lack this toe push-off. The shape of their pelvic bones and how their leg bones fit together indicated bipedal walking. 

Australopithecus afarensis

Scientists found fossils of one Hominin species in Ethiopia. They named them Australopithecus afarensis, which means “southern ape from the afar region,” because they were similar to other fossils found in eastern and southern Africa. These primates lived around 3.85 million years ago.

They nicknamed the first one they found Lucy, after a famous Beatles song of that era; pelvic bones revealed she was female. Although Lucy's species had just a partial pelvis, how her upper leg bones fit showed that she walked upright on her two feet3.

Beyond the old bones, anthropologists found fossilized footprints beneath a layer of volcanic ash at the Laetoli excavation site. These footprints were made on a wet surface of volcanic ash and show at least three individuals walking on two legs for a distance of about 88 feet.

Homo habilis 

Homo habilis was one of the earliest members of the genus Homo. They lived in eastern and southern Africa about 2.4 million to 1.4 million years ago. They had certain characteristics that made them like us today, such as smaller teeth and larger brain cases. But they still had long arms like apes.

Some scientists credit the H. habilis as the first tool makers. They had dexterous hands and made crude stone tools we call the Oldowan instruments. Scientists discovered, through the fossils of this species, that they walked on two legs but were still jumping from tree to tree like most non-human primates today6.

Homo erectus

Homo erectus was fully bipedal. They first appeared in Africa about 1.9 million years ago. Anthropologists believe that Homo erectus was an early member of our genus in the human tribe family bush. They had a much larger brain than earlier hominins and crafted stone tools we call the Acheulean implements. 

These species were the first to develop shorter arms and longer legs that made it possible to walk on two feet with the gait that we do today2. The homo Erectus had stronger knees, more angled femurs, curvier spine, and more hip support than earlier human ancestors. They had longer femurs than modern humans, which allowed them to take longer strides.

Why did humans evolve to walk?

There are a lot of guesses as to why the human tribe evolved to walking from being arboreal or walking on all fours. We say guesses because we can't go back in time to ask the first Hominin individual that stood upright why they did it. No one theory has been proven right or wrong.

Here are a few proposed reasons

It made gathering food easier

Early human ancestors were mainly fruit eaters and may have stood upright on two legs to reach not-so-far branches for fruits. Reaching up to trees, of course, is a less physically straining activity compared to climbing or swinging from tree to tree.

Walking on their two feet may have also helped early humans avoid competition from their family members over the foods they harvested.

It made self-defense easier

Another explanation was that the extra height offered by walking upright made it possible to see predators from afar. The upright stance may have given them a fighting chance against bigger and stronger predators.

It may have also allowed them to defend themselves while running from the predators. If a dangerous animal has ever chased you and you stopped to pick a stone, stick, or some other object to throw at it while still running, this would make sense to you.

The environment changed 

The earth has been through lots of environmental changes over several million years. Some people believe that perhaps there came a time when there were fewer trees, and walking rather than climbing got hominins to their destination.

It freed our hands 

One more suggested reason is that hominins recognized that walking on just their two rear limbs freed their front limbs to do other things. Being able to multitask that way gave rise to better cognitive development. Walking upright preceded tool-making in human history, so it may have contributed largely to the rise of technology in the human tribe.

Walking in contemporary times

Father and daughter walking
Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

For our human ancestors, walking was a pure survival adaptation. Today we not only walk to get from point A to point B but also for relaxation. We go on hikes for fun, relaxation, or exercise to build our stamina.

The ancient Romans came up with the idea of using walking to measure distance. If you have heard of sports like power walking and speed walking, they came up with those too.

In the 19th century, long-distance walking became a competitive sport across Europe and the United States. It was and still is a popular way to raise money for charity. Race walking is an Olympic sport.

Conclusion

So who invented walking? Well, no one, really. When was walking invented? It was a trait that developed over several million years. Some earlier human ancestors were not fully bipedal. There is no hard fact that explains why humans invented walking. All we have are speculations as to why our ancestors developed the trait, and well, we thank them for it.

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1

Berman, D. S., Sumida, S. S., Henrici, A. C., Scott, D., Reisz, R. R., & Martens, T. (2021). The Early Permian Bolosaurid Eudibamus cursoris: Earliest Reptile to Combine Parasagittal Stride and Digitigrade Posture During Quadrupedal and Bipedal Locomotion. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2021.674173

2

Karen L. Steudel-Numbers, Energetics in Homo erectus and other early hominins: The consequences of increased lower-limb length, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 51, Issue 5, 2006, Pages 445-453, ISSN 0047-2484, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.05.001

3

Kimbel, W.H. and Delezene, L.K. (2009), “Lucy” redux: A review of research on Australopithecus afarensis. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., 140: 2-48. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.21183

4

Ko K. H. (2016). Hominin interbreeding and the evolution of human variationJournal of biological research (Thessalonike, Greece)23, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40709-016-0054-7

5

White, T. D., Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Haile-Selassie, Y., Lovejoy, C. O., Suwa, G., & WoldeGabriel, G. (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominidsScience (New York, N.Y.)326(5949), 75–86.

6

Ruff, C. (2009), Relative limb strength and locomotion in Homo habilis. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., 138: 90-100. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.20907

7

Roberto Macchiarelli, Aude Bergeret-Medina, Damiano Marchi, Bernard Wood, Nature and relationships of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 149, 2020, 102898, ISSN 0047-2484, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2020.102898

8

Tattersall, I. Homo sapiens. Encyclopaedia Britannica

9

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Orrorin tugenensis.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Henry Xu on Unsplash
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