3 million-year-old toddler could climb trees, study says

3 Million Years Ago, Toddler Could Walk Upright and Climb Trees

New research suggests ancient ancestors to humans walked on two feet, even as toddlers, while also spending much of their lives climbing through the trees of Africa.

"For the first time, we have an unbelievable window into what walking was like for a two-and-a-half-year-old, more than three million years ago", said the study's lead author, Dr Jeremy DeSilva.

Alemseged, a University of Chicago professor and senior study author, agrees: "The Dikika foot adds to the wealth of knowledge on the mosaic nature of hominin skeletal evolution".

The tiny foot, about the size of a human thumb, is part of a almost complete 3.32-million-year-old skeleton of a young female Australopithecus afarensis discovered in 2002 in the Dikika region of Ethiopia by Zeresenay (Zeray) Alemseged, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study.

Selam is a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species-an extinct hominin thought to be an ancestor of our own genus, Homo, or possibly a close ancestral relative.

The most complete foot of an ancient child discovered yet, this tiny clutch of bones no larger than a human thumb has shed light on the mysterious lives of our ancestors.

Scientists have found fossils that are millions of years old, and it tells us more about what our early ancestors would have been like. The scientists noticed that Selam's big toe was curved, similarly to the feet anatomy of monkeys, such as chimpanzees or orangutans, among others.

Unsurprisingly, this led to it being erroneously called "Lucy's baby" by the popular press - despite this toddler having been around 200,000 years before Lucy.

Not surprisingly, Selam's foot presented very similar anatomy to that of modern humans.

DeSilva said his research also reveals the toddler would have been quite skilled at walking on two feet, based on the shape of the foot.

But when researchers analyzed the skeletal structure of Selam's foot, they noticed that the base of the big toe would have allowed her to be a great climber. So although the afarensis toddlers could walk, they probably spent more time in trees than on foot, unlike adults.

This finding challenges the long-held assumption that A. afarensis was exclusively bipedal (using only two legs for walking) and only occasionally climbed into trees.

This evidence of increased mobility of the toe is an ape-like pattern that DeSilva et al. say is suggestive of a selective advantage of this trait and which offers new insights into the evolution of bipedality. "We conclude from this, and from previous studies on the shoulders of the Dikika child that she would have been able to climb, and to also grasp onto her mother during travel". Fossils of these ancient humans showed such a feet structure of the young ones that it seems they scaled trees.

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