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Endurance running may be key to evolution of human body form

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - A collection of seemingly random physiological traits that arose millions of years ago, at the evolutionary split of chimpanzees and Homo erectus, conspired to make humans unusually strong endurance runners, permitting our ancient ancestors to compete for food with speedy four-legged carnivores and greatly shaping the distinctive human body form that we know today.

So say anthropologists at Harvard University and the University of Utah, who report on the evolution of traits such as a small ridge at the base of our skulls, shoulders decoupled from our heads, an extensive series of springy tendons along the back of our legs and feet, and well-defined buttocks in the Nov. 18 issue of the journal Nature.

"These esoteric anatomical features make humans surprisingly good runners. Over long distances, we can outrun our dogs and give many horses a good race," says Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of anthropology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "What these features and fossil facts appear to be telling us is that running evolved in order for our direct ancestors to compete with other carnivores for access to the protein needed to grow the big brains that we enjoy today."

Protein and fat derived from prey are excellent food for growing the bodies and brains of predators; Lieberman suggests running may have fueled growth of the human brain by relaxing constraints on human acquisition of protein and fat.

"We are very confident that strong selection for running - which came at the expense of the historical ability to live in trees - was instrumental in the origin of the modern human body form," says Dennis M. Bramble, a professor of biology at Utah. "Running has substantially shaped human evolution. Running made us human - at least in an anatomical sense. We think running is one of the most transforming events in human history. We are arguing the emergence of humans is tied to the evolution of running." <
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Contact: Steve Bradt
steve_bradt@harvard.edu
617-496-8070
Harvard University
17-Nov-2004


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