Nobody invented anything all by themselves. No matter what you’re talking about — whether it be the telephone, sailboat, or a rocket ship — everything is the result of many, many incremental steps and innovations over time. And for an invention as fundamental and life-changing as walking, this is especially true. But who gets credit for being the first walker? Who really invented walking?
For this article, we will focus on walking upright, instead of on walking in general. Additionally, we will only focus on the walking innovations that lead to modern homo sapiens being able to walk today. We will include as much of the fossil record as possible to highlight and support our choices. We will refer to expert opinion and informed published research where the fossil record is limited.
Why is Walking so Important?
Why does it matter who really invented walking? There are several reasons why walking upright on a regular basis is advantageous. We usually do not notice these advantages because most of us walk without actually making the decision to do so.
First, walking upright raises the head above our lower surroundings. This helps us make better decisions about where to go, or how to get to where we want to go and avoid danger.
Second, it leaves our other limbs (our arms) free to complete other tasks instead of holding our bodies up. We can use tools, fight, eat, and play while walking or running. We are able to reach and grab things at a greater height than we would be able to while reaching with just our mouths.
Third, it is a more energy-efficient mode of locomotion. While four-legged animals are usually faster than two-legged ones, the energy efficiency of two legs means that bipedal creatures are able to walk or run for longer and over greater distances than their four-legged counterparts. This meant that humans, and our human-related ancestors, were able to pursue animals for long periods of time, often running them to exhaustion without the need to sprint to catch them.
The ability to walk upright predates the evolution of our larger brain, the use of tools, and other significant evolutionary changes. Bipedal locomotion allowed our earliest ancestors to better survive in their environment. This freed up energy and parts of the body to be directed to other functions. It is safe to say that if our forefathers never learned to walk upright, we would never have evolved to the point where we can write and read this article today.
The First Living Thing to Walk
The first creature to show the earliest signs of walking are early species of tetrapod. It was most likely a species of Pederpes. The only species of the genus Pederpes is P. finneyae which was about one meter long. They lived during the point where amphibians and reptiles began to diverge evolutionarily. They are among the transitional species between fish and land-based animals.
P. finneyae had short limbs with six digits which show signs that they could be used for extended locomotion on land. Experts say they are the earliest known animals that could live entirely on land. However, some of their body structure suggest they were better adapted to life in water and most likely returned there for food.
This is the foundation of walking upon which all subsequent direct descendants built until the evolution of the apes. This is where the advancement to bipedal locomotion really took off.
The First Hominid to Walk Upright
The first of our ape ancestors to show signs of walking upright on two feet is the Sahelanthropus tchadensis. This species of hominae lived around 7 million years ago. Archaeologists discovered them in Africa in northern Chad.
Sahelanthropus tchadensis is our most likely candidate for the last ancestor that lived before the split between chimpanzees and humans. Their fossil records date to around that time and show similar evolutionary traits found in both evolutionary paths. It is possible that Sahelanthropus tchadensis is our oldest non-ape ancestor. Archaeologists discovered in 2002. Researchers announced in 2022 that it was reasonable to say that Sahelanthropus tchadensis probably could maintain an upright posture while walking on just two feet.
While it is doubtful the Sahelanthropus tchadensis walked upright most of the time, the ability to do so was an important achievement. The advantage it gave them over their competitors probably contributed to their evolutionary success.
It is hard to overstate the importance of earning, and evolving, to walk uprightly at least some of the time. It is a significant milestone in our evolutionary history, and arguably the most important advancement because it forever separated human evolution from ape evolution.
The First Human Who Really Invented Walking
Ever since Sahelanthropus tchadensis, there are signs that our ancestors walked upright at least some of the time. Whether this was while fighting, climbing, or running, bipedal locomotion was now an important aspect of life. However, to transition from occasional walking to full-time walking is a major leap.
The species to make this leap, so to speak, is most likely Australopithecus afarensis, of the evolutionary tribe, Australopithecina. These are the ones we can point to say say who truly invented walking in the way we recognize today.
Modern humans (homo sapiens) are a part of the genus homo, which evolved out of the Australopithecus genus around two million years ago. In other words, while they are extinct now, we would not exist without them.
Analysis of the skeletons of several species of Australopiths shows that they were fully adapted to walking on two legs exclusively. It is important to remember, though, that it is not only the legs that will show this adaptation. Many changes in the skeleton had to have taken place in order for exclusive bipedal locomotion to even be possible. This includes the shape of the spine, the position of the hips, the strength and length of leg bones, and the size and shape of the brain. Analysis of the entire skeleton of Australopith members suggests their bipedal nature.
Specifically, the species Australopithecus afarensis lived between 4 million and 3 million years ago. They lived primarily in East Africa. Archaologists found the first remains of Australopithecus afarensis in 1930. Yet, only subsequent discoveries in the 70s and 80s (including the discovery of the famous Lucy fossils) confirmed they walked exclusively on two legs.
They still had long, ape-like arms, which appear similar to the arms of orangutans or gorillas. They probably used these arms for climbing trees. In fact, these early humans probably lived in trees still.
Because their bodies were different from those of modern humans, they walked differently than us and were less efficient at walking in general. Thought they were much more efficient than their ape ancestors. Footprint fossils show that they probably looked like modern human toddlers as they walked. They put more weight on the outside of their feet. They probably dragged their toes on the ground as they lifted their feet for each step.
So, who really invented walking? We can point to a few of our early ancestors and give them credit for their brave, innovative, steps (pun intended). But it should be noted that our record of early history is far from complete. Archaeologists can still discover other, earlier specimens to enter into the fossil record. Every year, we discover new species that force us to rewrite our understanding of prehistory. These are our current earliest examples of bipedal animation, but they probably won’t hold that position for long. It is an exciting time to be alive as we learn more and more about our distant family tree!
The photo featured at the top of this post is © RossellaApostoli/iStock via Getty Images
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.