The Evolution of Walking: From Laetoli to the Exodus to the Appalachian Trail

hiking in Chamonix

Ambulating on two legs dates back  3.6 million years ago according to anthropologists who have studied human like foot prints preserved in the volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania. Those foot prints were discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey in 1978.

http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/10_1/laetoli.html

The Laetoli footprints, from http://www.getty.edu, photo-Martha Demas, 1995.

The human like Austrolapithicenes who left those foot prints were quite possibly walking for a utilitarian purpose, like searching for food or shelter, or returning to their shelter. As our human society has evolved, however, walking has evolved right along with it. In fact, one could suggest that as a species, we have evolved to no longer need walking for distance travel.

We walk now to thrive, not survive. Evening strolls, weekend hikes, backpacking trips, laps around the high school track. Humans continue to find new but non-essential ways to exploit the simple, elegant act of placing one foot in front the other. And that act, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be human.

Today, walking for long distance travel,  on the other hand, has become rare. And this might explain why last month, when the Tougas family of New Richmond, Canada, announced their plans to walk more than two thousand miles, together, on the Appalachian Trail,  they saw it as a viable marketing opportunity to raise money for their project.

The Tougas family announced their planned family through-hike of the AT on Kickstarter.com.  They  received pledges of $19,109 (Canadian), surpassing their goal of $16,000. The family spokesperson and father, Damien Tougas, explains on his KickStarter site that the monies raised will go to fund production of a video series that sponsors will receive in installments, once a month. The money raised, he said, will not be used to pay for the hike itself. The family has already put aside funds for their 6 month sojourn, he explains.

Walking has always been a sure mode of human transportation. Early humans of course had no alternative. Hunting and gathering required walking and beasts of burden had presumably not yet become part of daily life.  Even Americans, thousands of years following hunter-gatherers, still walked alongside their covered wagons,  for upwards of six months.  400,000 or so people migrated, on foot, westward to  Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and California, between 1840 to almost 1870. Their wagons were so full of family belongings and food there was precious little room left for riders. But these hearty pioneers were perhaps among the last of the long-distance migratory walkers, at least in North America.

Human beings have slowly, but persistently, sought out alternatives to walking. Even several thousand years ago, Egyptian soldiers used horses to pull their chariots. Some Greek warriors rode into battle on the backs of elephants and trade routes in the Middle East have domesticated the camel.  In more recent times horses have either carried riders or pulled wagons and carriages.  The horseless carriage morphed into the car, and now motorized transportation has become ubiquitous.  Walking as a daily means of transportation has become a rarity, at least in western civilization.

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

And while the Tougas’ get great credit for their planned family adventure, we are left with the question, why is watching another family walk intrinsically interesting? Certainly there are challenges and risks with a long distance hike and even more so for the younger Tougas children.  The AT however,  is well marked, well traveled and fairly close to civilization along most of the route. Although  a 2,100 mile trek is big undertaking, and the trail is quite strenuous at times and weather is always a variable.

Nonetheless, I suggest that our societal de-evolution of long distance walking is the key to family Tougas’ ability to raise close to twenty thousand dollars from 267 people who are willing to pay to see that family walk. Almost like paying to watch an IMAX movie about rock climbers, or cliff divers or base jumpers. In 2014, traveling a long distance on foot is a novelty and considered an adventure, only for the intrepid among us. And I suspect that even if family Tougas said they were going to walk strictly along back-country roads from Georgia to Maine and stay in bed and breakfasts along the way, and not pitch their tent in the woods, they still would have been able to raise money for their trip.

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

In one week the Jewish people mark the exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt, when they began their forty year sojourn toward the Promised Land. After hundreds of years of bitter enslavement the Israelites walked out of Egypt, away from their life of servitude, to follow Moses, a leader appointed by God. During four decades the Hebrew tribe walked from encampment to encampment in the Sinai peninsula, until they finally crossed the Jordan River to enter the city of Jericho in the land of Israel.

Next week, when Jewish families gather to commemorate that night about four thousand years ago when the Israelite  begin their long walk toward freedom, let us also remember that one of the most basic human functions, walking, is so simple and elegant. The long walk should not be considered a novelty,  since  the process of walking can transport us, physically and figuratively, toward a new beginning.

Howard E. Friedman

 

 

 

 

Austrolapithicus on Breakneck Ridge

My son and I hiked what is commonly referred to as one of the more strenuous day hikes in the greater metropolitan New York region, noted for its steep ascent requiring both hands to navigate several steep rock scrambles. The route begins on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, separated by the Metro-North Hudson line train tracks. The route ascends promptly and continues to do so for seven tenths of a mile, climbing 1,260 feet to the summit.

Ascending Breakneck Ridge

Ascending Breakneck Ridge (photo credit Daniel Chazin, NY/NJ Trail Conference)

While clinging to the precambrian granite gneiss and searching by feel for a toe hold to provide a slender ledge from which to push myself higher I thought for a moment of the footsteps upon which I stood 48 hours earlier. Two days prior I had visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and spent a few moments in the Hall of Human Origins. Near the beginning of the exhibit stand two short hairy human-like people, holding hands, one male and one female. Their gaze is straight ahead and has an air of contented surprise.

Austrolapithicus

Austrolapithicus

The curators have placed in front of this couple a casting of Austrolapithicus footprints, discovered by anthropologists Mary Leakey and Paul Abell in 1978 and taken from a dig in Laetoli, Tanzania, not far from the Olduvai Gorge. About 3.5 million years ago dozens of footprints were fossilized in volcanic ash. The footprints appear human. The great toe is not simian –not angling wildly away from the foot. Rather it is parallel to the other toes and the footprints also reflect an arch, another human characteristic.

These prints are significant because they are among the earliest signs of bipedalism in human ancestors and scientists believe they are proof of when our ancestors mastered walking on two feet, which they also conclude was long before our ancestral brain increased in size.

Visitors of the exhibit are invited to place their feet on the fossilized prints. That I do. My size 10.5 foot dwarfs these uber-ancient footprints. I stand there face to face. This moment of staring in their eyes while also standing in their footsteps came back to me while on Breakneck Ridge, as I searched for a toehold on metamorphosed granite, hardened deep in the earth’s crust eons before man took his first step.

Austrolapiths’ footprints are recorded for all time, a record of a straight-ahead walk across a muddy flat. My toehold on the granite gneiss will leave no mark, no impression on the earth. Yet at that very moment for the first time I contemplated a  connection between myself and the most early walkers: a relationship between those early humans we know by their footprints for whom walking upright was a seminal event in human history and me and my fellow humans for whom a good toehold on the rock is just another day well spent.