Extinct Ancient Ape Did Not Walk Like a Human, Study Show

According to a new study, led by University of Texas at Austin anthropologists Gabrielle A. Russo and Liza Shapiro, the 9- to 7-million-year-old ape from Italy did not, in fact, walk habitually on two legs.

The findings refute a long body of evidence, suggesting that Oreopithecus had the capabilities for bipedal (moving on two legs) walking.

The study, published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, confirms that anatomical features related to habitual upright, two-legged walking remain exclusively associated with humans and their fossil ancestors.

“Our findings offer new insight into the Oreopithecus locomotor debate,” says Russo, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Northeast Ohio Medical University. “While it’s certainly possible that Oreopithecus walked on two legs to some extent, as apes are known to employ short bouts of this activity, an increasing amount of anatomical evidence clearly demonstrates that it didn’t do so habitually.”

As part of the study, the researchers analyzed the fossil ape to see whether it possessed lower spine anatomy consistent with bipedal walking. They compared measurements of its lumbar vertebrae (lower back) and sacrum (a triangular bone at the base of the spine) to those of modern humans, fossil hominins (extinct bipedal human ancestors), and a sample of mammals that commonly move around in trees, including apes, sloths and an extinct lemur.

The lower spine serves as a good basis for testing the habitual bipedal locomotion hypothesis because human lumbar vertebrae and sacra exhibit distinct features that facilitate the transmission of body weight for habitual bipedalism, says Russo.

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