The Ancient Foot of Homo naledi : New research

Digital reconstruction of Homo naledi foot. Nature Communications, August 2015

Digital reconstruction of Homo naledi foot. Nature Communications, August 2015

A detailed scientific description of a complete ancient hominin foot published in Nature Communications this past August 2015 finds more similarities than differences between our modern feet and this species’ ancient skeletal foot type. Although still undated, this species, being called Homo naledi, discovered only last year in South Africa by Lee R. Berger Ph.d and team, had a foot type well adapted for bipedal walking. Many other species also demonstrate such adaptations. But, H. naledi’s small skull and other skeletal morphologies would indicate that this species was still quite ancient and perhaps modern feet have been around much longer than other features we consider ‘human’, such as a large brain.

Two important differences in the H. naledi foot from our own Homo sapien foot inlcude a more flattened heel bone, called the calcaneus and more curved small toe bones, called the phalanges. The calcaneal change would indicate a generally flatter foot type than the average human foot which has at least some arch. And the curved toes would indicate that H. naledi engaged in some kind of activity that benefitted from grasping of toes.

Anthropologists have known that ancestral humans have walked on two feet even dating back 3.6 million years to Austrolapithicenes in Laetoli, Tanzania. But, evolution is not specifically linear. The newly discovered skeletal remains give us a unique insight into how a species, maybe an ancestor, maybe not, looked-at least how their skeleton looked. And the paper’s authors state that these skeletal foot remains are “distinct” from members of Homo erectus and Homo habilis, other ancient hominins, writing that, “The foot of H. naledi thus expands the range of locomotor diversity in both the hominin lineage and the genus Homo.”

Finding more ancient human-like remains usually raises more questions than provides answers in our desperate attempt to understand from where we came. But one fact remains clear. Our ability to walk on our own two feet is far, far from uniquely human as even our small brained cousins were fully bipedal, (and, most certainly, shoe-less as well).

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Wet Foot, Cold Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot

This morning was a crisp autumn one, cool, azure sky with feathery brush strokes of cumulus clouds scattered about. No precipitation I thought, until I ran through ankle high grass and weeds. My feet became saturated since I do not wear water proof shoes and the thin dewy moisture on the grass blades and small clover petals soaked right through my fabric shoes, penetrated my mostly polyester socks and sent a distracting cold and wet sensation directly from my toes to my brain.

Water proof shoes are heavily advertised as a must have feature. Gore-tex lined shoes whether for running or hiking are de rigueur, it seems. But I have persisted in buying only non water proof foot wear, with the exception of winter boots. One way or another, your feet will be getting wet. Wear water proof shoes and your feet will perspire yet the shoes will not release all of the moisture. Wear non water proof shoes and your feet will absorb moisture from the dew or rain on the ground or when you land in a puddle or tip toe through a stream.

But at least in my case, I know that eventually my feet will dry, since moisture can evaporate out of my unlined shoes, especially as they are warmed by my hyperthermic feet. In a gore tex lined shoe, moisture is trapped inside your shoe and can not evaporate until you take them off and let them air dry. Your feet are cocooned in a most un-natural layer of impermeable fabric.

I accept that feet will get wet on the trail or off road, and even cool of chilly.  I am not running or hiking on a sidewalk and thus, having some of nature encroach upon my feet is a small price to pay for keeping my feet, and me, more in touch with the ground they tread upon. Of course, if I really wanted to be in close contact with the ground, I would run or hike barefoot, as some intrepid people do. But I am not motivated to that level. Yet I do feel that my rationale, which I adapted after reading the thoughts of ultra long distance hiker Andrew Skurka, a number of years ago, have served me well. I enjoy the unexpected cold burst of wet feet that surprises me from time to time in the same way I am pleasantly surprised by a chance encounter with an unexpected sighting of an eastern bluebird or scarlet tanager or northern oriole, or deer or chipmunk, or very rarely, a bear. The exposure to what nature offers, when dosed in safe and rational measures, is part of the experience of being out doors. And as part of being rational, for example, I do not endorse going coat less in a dousing rain or hat less in a blistering sun, actions which would just be foolish and unsafe.

But wet feet once in a while can actually enhance the day outdoors, connect you to the trail or path you have chosen to follow and help create an all encompassing trail experience.