'Hominins walked like modern humans, climbed like apes'

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

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. With his team, he has carefully examined the foot fossil of a two-and-a-half-year-old living 3 million years ago.

Her almost complete skeleton was discovered in the Dikika region of Ethiopia in 2002 by Zeresenay Alemseged, paleontologist and professor of organismal biology and anatomy and the University of Chicago. But freeing Selam from the ground took years. She was encased in sediment that was millions of years old, and researchers had to be extremely careful.

"For the first time, we have an wonderful window into what walking was like for a (2.5)-year-old, more than 3 million years ago", Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. and lead author in the study, said in a statement. The professor found a skull, nearly a complete vertebral column with ribs, shoulder bones, part of her arms and legs and the foot.

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 Dikika foot is one part of a partial skeleton of a 3.32 million-year-old skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis child. But there are ape-like features about afarensis, as well. As well as scaling trees, the ancient toddler's feet suggest she used to cling to her mother. A 2016 study of what might have caused her death estimates that she was 15 or 16 years old. The pair lived upwards of 120,000 years apart.

Given afarensis' size, predators such as hyenas, jackals and saber-toothed cats would have posed a threat. "I can't image how they would have survived if they didn't go into the trees at night". That's an inference based on the fact there is no evidence of fire or construction for another million years in Africa, said DeSilva. If you saw her walking from afar, you would think Lucy was human by her silhouette. What's more, the toddler found in Dikika, Ethiopia, was probably better at climbing than her parents.

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.

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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. They found the big toe was more capable of moving side-to-side than skeletons of similar adult feet, meaning it would be better at climbing through branches and latching onto its mother.

The fossilized foot is as small as a human thumb. Shoulder blades are an incredibly rare find because they're delicate, nearly paper thin, and don't usually fossilize.

The paleontologists managed to recover the whole skeleton of this primitive female toddler and started to study it to shed more light on the human evolution.

"Understanding if climbing was part of a species' adaptation and to what extent are crucial", Alemseged said.

The fossil record shows that these ancient ancestors were adept at walking upright.

Written by Ashley Strickland for CNN.

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