It is common knowledge amongst scientists that Australopithecus afarensis was able to walk upright, possibly spending much more time on the ground than in the trees. However, with a new study of a three-million-old fossil belonging to this early hominid’s toddler, we might have to significantly change our views on the way our potential ancestors behaved.
The foot of an infant hominid sheds more light on A. afarensis’ way of life
Published in Science Advances, the research focuses on the remains of a two-and-a-half years old female infant of Australopithecus afarensis, found in 2002 in the Dikika region of Ethiopia and named “Selam”. This fossil, dated at 3.32 million years ago, comprises most of the skull and torso, as well as many parts of the limbs. However, a very well-preserved foot about the size of a human thumb seems to reveal a lot about the way of life of this great early hominid.
The balanced combination of ape-like and human characteristics
According to the lead author of the paper, Jeremy DeSilva from Dartmouth College, the features of Selam’s foot seem to suggest that while being fully adapted to standing and walking on two feet, this infant A. afarensis could climb the trees with ease. Such skills could be crucial in times of danger, allowing the child to escape the predator by either clinging to its mother or by climbing up the trees. Even in relative safety, young A. afarensis were visiting the trees more frequently than their parents.
An important piece in the hominid evolution, Australopithecus afarensis was spending more time walking upright, preferring the ground over the trees and exhibiting some of the traits of the modern human. Still, their children possessed some ape-like characteristics, which made them better climbers than the adults.