"Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst and supernova powered by a magnetar" by ESO / CC BY 4.0

Did ancient supernovae prompt human ancestors to walk upright?

May 29, 2019

By the University of Kansas

A paper published today in the Journal of Geology makes the case: Supernovae bombarded Earth with cosmic energy starting as many as 8 million years ago, with a peak some 2.6 million years ago, initiating an avalanche of electrons in the lower atmosphere and setting off a chain of events that feasibly ended with bipedal hominins such as Homo habilis, dubbed “handy man.”

The authors believe atmospheric ionization probably triggered an enormous upsurge in cloud-to-ground lightning strikes that ignited forest fires around the globe. These infernos could be one reason ancestors of Homo sapiens developed bipedalism — to adapt in savannas that replaced torched forests in northeast Africa.

“It is thought there was already some tendency for hominins to walk on two legs, even before this event,” said lead author Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics & astronomy at the University of Kansas. “But they were mainly adapted for climbing around in trees. After this conversion to savanna, they would much more often have to walk from one tree to another across the grassland, and so they become better at walking upright. They could see over the tops of grass and watch for predators. It’s thought this conversion to savanna contributed to bipedalism as it became more and more dominant in human ancestors.”

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