February 11, 2011 in Nation/World

Ancestor Lucy walked like us, experts say

Alan Bavley McClatchy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Our celebrated ancestor Lucy was no waddling, hunched-over ape-woman who felt more at home in the trees.

New research from the University of Missouri in Columbia offers the most conclusive evidence yet that Lucy and her tribe spent their lives on solid ground and walked much as modern humans do – more than 3 million years ago.

Lucy, just 31/2 feet tall, would have been more capable of strutting on a dance floor than of swinging from a branch.

“I bet she could dance,” said Missouri anatomy professor Carol Ward. “I don’t know if I could do any better.”

In research to be published today in the journal Science, Ward and two colleagues used a newly discovered foot bone from a dig in Ethiopia to determine that members of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, had arched feet like ours.

That may seem like a small detail, but it has huge implications for the course of human evolution.

It may help settle a decades-old argument among scientists over whether Lucy was a dedicated land rover or still spent much of her time in trees, as many apes do.

Arches put a spring in her step and made it possible to comfortably stand and walk. But arches also took away the flexibility that lets apes grasp with their feet as they scramble up trees.

“Is she a shuffling ape that just stood up?” Ward said. “This tells us she’s given up the ability to be good in trees to be good on the ground. There was no more compromise.

“We can walk well over distances, and that started with Australopithecus. It turned out to be a good plan for us.”

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