Ten great discoveries: Following ancient footsteps

footprints-1wFor National Science and Engineering Week , we are celebrating 10 great scientific advances made at the University of Liverpool. Over the 10 days of the event, we will be highlighting a different advance each day to show what science can achieve.

Our penultimate advance is the discovery that human beings walked in a modern way almost two million years earlier than had been traditionally thought.

Many earlier studies had suggested that the characteristics of the human foot, such as the ability to push off the ground with the big toe, and a fully upright bipedal gait, emerged in early Homo, approximately 1.9 million years-ago.

In 2011, Liverpool researchers showed that footprints of a human ancestor dating back 3.7 million years ago, reveal features of the foot with more similarities to the gait of modern humans than with the type of bipedal walking used by chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas.

The footprint site of Laetoli, Tanzania contains the earliest known trail made by human ancestors and includes 11 individual prints in good condition.

The team used a new statistical technique, based on methods employed in functional brain imaging, to obtain a three-dimensional average of the 11 intact prints in the Laetoli trail. This was then compared to data from studies of footprint formation and under-foot pressures generated from walking in modern humans and other living great apes. Computer simulation was used to predict the footprints that would have been formed by different types of gaits in the likely printmaker, a species called Australopithecus afarensis.

To see the other nine great advances, visit the University’s news pages during National Science and Engineering Week (14-23 March).

If you want to find out more about current research in this area at the University of Liverpool, visit the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease website, or go to our study pages to find out more about studying anatomy and human biology.

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