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J Hum Evol. 2000 May;38(5):651-66.

Locomotor energetics and leg length in hominid bipedality.

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Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-3100, USA.


Because bipedality is the quintessential characteristic of Hominidae, researchers have compared ancient forms of bipedality with modern human gait since the first clear evidence of bipedal australopithecines was unearthed over 70 years ago. Several researchers have suggested that the australopithecine form of bipedality was transitional between the quadrupedality of the African apes and modern human bipedality and, consequently, inefficient. Other researchers have maintained that australopithecine bipedality was identical to that of Homo. But is it reasonable to require that all forms of hominid bipedality must be the same in order to be optimized? Most attempts to evaluate the locomotor effectiveness of the australopithecines have, unfortunately, assumed that the locomotor anatomy of modern humans is the exemplar of consummate bipedality. Modern human anatomy is, however, the product of selective pressures present in the particular milieu in which Homo arose and it is not necessarily the only, or even the most efficient, bipedal solution possible. In this report, we investigate the locomotion of Australopithecus afarensis, as represented by AL 288-1, using standard mechanical analyses. The osteological anatomy of AL 288-1 and movement profiles derived from modern humans are applied to a dynamic model of a biped, which predicts the mechanical power required by AL 288-1 to walk at various velocities. This same procedure is used with the anatomy of a composite modern woman and a comparison made. We find that AL 288-1 expends less energy than the composite woman when locomoting at walking speeds. This energetic advantage comes, however, at a price: the preferred transition speed (from a walk to a run) of AL 288-1 was lower than that of the composite woman. Consequently, the maximum daily range of AL 288-1 may well have been substantially smaller than that of modern people. The locomotor anatomy of A. afarensis may have been optimized for a particular ecological niche-slow speed foraging-and is neither compromised nor transitional.

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