Running into the Past: Locomotion and the Human Condition (A supplement)

As the New Year has rolled in, so have visuals, concepts, and price tags for next year’s new car models. 2015 marks a big year for many car dealers, as they tend to introduce redesigned models, new models, and visionary concepts for the future. In this, we can read atradition that has stemmed forth from the early part of the 20th century. Our means of getting from A to B have changed dramatically. Yet, in some ways remain incredibly the same. In the
fossil record, the traditional means to identify a human ancestor remain largely focused on the whether or not remains indicate bipedal locomotion. What did this shift do for us? In what ways have changes in our means of getting from A to B altered our experience and understanding of the world around us? How do we envision the future, and just where do we want to go and why? In this post I will briefly address each of these questions and drive at visionary, restless, and even practical threads that connect people, past, present, and future, in a shared human experience.

“Since the dawn of time,” a phrase that echoes ungrounded sincerity of knowledge in times beyond experience is fitting only when directed at a particular thread that seems connected to the present. Lo and behold, upright bipedal walking (or locomotion) appears to remain that thread (at least for now) in determining a sense of when the hominid (modern humans and our ancestral cousins) experience began. Prior to upright walking our furrier cousins had a tendency to brachiate, meaning swing from tree branch to tree branch in thick forests of vegetation. At least so the hypotheses seem to suggest for now.

Leaning from our modern brachiating cousins, Chimpanzees and Bonobos, we know that brachiating doesn’t restrict movement to trees and vegetated areas. Chimps and bonobos will walk on all fours and even upright for relatively short distances. Just because they walk upright doesn’t make them human. The difference here lies in the habitual experience of locomotion. Early hominids were habitual upright walkers, meaning that they walked upright above all other forms of locomotion. When the transition from relatively full time brachiation to relatively full time upright walking took place is loosely indicated in fossil remains like that of Sahelanthropus Tchadensis (circa 7 million years ago or MYA), Orrorin Tugensis (circa 6.5 MYA), Ardipithecus Ramidus (circa 4.4 MYA), and Australopithecus Afarensis (circa 3.9 to 3.3 MYA). These early fossils seem to coincide with the genetic evidence suggesting the split between the species that would eventually become modern humans and modern chimpanzees and bonobos occurred around 6 MYA.

Walking. We take it for granted today. We by shoes to make walking comfortable and make social statements. We walk in groups, to get from A to B, and even with fury companions. The world today, from roads, to commercial products, health concerns is in some way adapted to facilitate human walking. The problem is, that when walking came into being among our human ancestors, the world was not conditioned for it. Although the notion of standing upright can allow us to conjure images of human ancestors looking over a savanna plain or freeing up arms to carry fruits from a successful foraging, it wasn’t particularly conducive to alluding prey. The fossil record is particularly keen in reminding us of this point. Skeletons of Australopithecines are often found in South African caves with K-9 tooth perforations in the skull, likely coming from ancient saber cats. To escape such a fate, you didn’t necessarily have to be fast but you did need stamina.

When we think of our early ancestors, walking is the connecting thread. Running, however, paints a more enduring image. Likely beginning with the genus Homo (though, like walking, the shift has left evidence in the skeletal remains in species such as Australopithecus Sediba), running produced a wealth of selective benefits. Members of the Homo genus are adept long distance runners, meaning they can run great distances for days, chasing down herds of animals until they collapse from exhaustion. In this context running should not be confused with sprinting. Cheetahs are excellent sprinters, reaching beyond a max speed of 70 miles and hour. Though such a speed can only be sustained for about 90 seconds. The genus Homo, on the other hand, can run at a steady 6 miles an hour for many hours or even days at a time. What this means, is that with running a new ecological niche was opened up bringing with it a diversity of foods, resources, and environments. With running, the genus Homo spread rapidly through Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and Europe, potentially as a result of following herds among other social factors.

It may be interesting to consider different herds and different paths through the landscape like different car models. This one will keep you warm but has lower gas millage. This one model is electric, environment friendly and efficient, but needs to be plugged in regularly. What I’m driving at is, how we get from A to B affects our experience of the world as much as A and B does as destinations. To that end, swimming is another form of locomotion that also gets looked over. Though humans are swimmers, we aren’t really good at it or fast at it. What swimming does do for us is again open up new ecological niches. Whether this happens in the form of catching mussels, fishing, or moving past a body of water to a new landscape, swimming is a form of locomotion that has also intrinsically shaped the human experience.

Why is it important to get from A to B? Have people always thought of the advantages to be gained from occupying a new area? What about latent dangers in the unknown? What lengths will we go through to reach new areas? There are several factors, answers, and explanations for these questions. However, humans are excellent innovators when driven by a particular task. If the distance is too great to swim, make a canoe. If the waters are too rough build a larger boat. If the waters are to great and the distance too long, build an even larger boat. Better yet, build something that can fly. You might be thinking all of this is great but to what end? Why keep making things to get us to take us longer distances in shorter periods of time?

Distance is worth crossing for resources. As mentioned earlier, the evolutionary advantage to different forms of locomotion is materially recognizable in that new ecological niches are opened. We co-evolve with our environments and the recourses in them. More than simply going to new places, but actually gaining passage to new areas will change the embodied experience of the world, often for ecological gain and often for political means. This is especially evident in history, as many cultures and societies the world over have in part defined themselves, and been identified by, a form of locomotion which was used to constitute a sense of political authority.

Running and swimming, in modern contexts, may be considered specialty forms of locomotion, meaning that endurance is built up, mussels are trained, and skills are developed over time. These forms of locomotion are acquired. Some cultures throughout history have honed such skills to become symbols. Among New World societies, the Aztec, Inca, and (most likely) Maya had communication systems centered on running from the state center to territorial borders and trade outposts beyond them. The reason for getting from A to B in these situations were for the purposes of political administration. This is key to take note of, as new world civilizations lacked pack animals that could be used for traversing long distances quickly. By nature of distance, political centers in the new world needed to develop means of communications across their territories that could keep connections to border territories firm.

By contrast, Ancient Greece took full advantage of the horse as a means to get from A to B and supplement political authority. More than having the arcane symbol of the Trojan horse, the Greeks also had myth on their sides. The concept of the centaur, a half man half horse warrior, came into being from skilled archers who rode horseback. These archers were so skilled that they could ride horses with leg strength alone, freeing up their arms to shoot arrows in combat.

For many old world societies, horses provided a quick and usual way to get from A to B quickly in short distances and effectively over long distance. Such a powerful motivator, the horse itself became a locus of entangled innovation. Not only were armors, accessories, and “shoes” developed for the horse, how it was used and what it came to signify changed accordingly as well. Multiple horses often pulled chariots of the ancient world. In doing so, the horse became a unit of measurable power, a standard somewhat held on to today in combustion engines.

Horses were not the only war animals however. Elephants were also rode into battle, notably by Hannibal in the Carthaginian wars. Elephants also became a powerful symbol for similar reasons in the Vijayanagara Empire, where ruin elephant stables can still be seen standing today. Beasts of burden became symbols od authoritative power and the ability to control resources over great distances of land, yet similar power was expressed over waterways.

Whether by the ancient Athenian, British Monarchy, or Norse Ships, control of waterway routes has been a central concern of political navies throughout history. With the advent of the 20th century, the control of passageways was extended in airspace, bringing with it fighter planes, commercial carriers, and recreational novelties, each entailing a set of standards reaching back to political actors.

Not only has moving from A to B changed the social experience of being human by movement, it has affected how we innovate, the means through which we travel (land, sea, air, or space), the social ties we share and with whom, as well as resources that we choose to select for. Control of travel is important here, because what is entailed in getting from A to B is central to human experience today as well as it was in the ancient past. We might envision that when ancient humans were in hunter-gatherer societies, people needed to negotiate territories if they should by chance encroach upon another group’s herd. Such manner of negotiations is central to our concerns today, manifesting in trade agreements, international policies, and the desire to control certain territories.

As this is but an introduction into locomotion and the power dynamics entailed by it, I will keep this brief. Though I would like to comment that our means of travel continue to change as they continue to stay the same. The social dynamics of travel retain threads of commonality. Even with car production today, we use past models (figuratively and literally) to conceptualize the future. Though we may become fixated on the Science Fiction promise of the flying car (something real though viability is dubious), we are content to keep what we know, within a system we have created. If it’s not broke why fix it, is often followed by when stark innovation in times of necessity. So while the 2015 Ford F150 may not have the same carrying capacity as the 1915 model, it does climate conditioned cab, aux port for your iPhone, and a relatively green fuel economy, all testament to travel concerns and conditions of the contemporary world and its outlook to the future. One can only speculate how 10,000 years of driving may affect the selective pressures of the human condition, and what being human will mean then.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow to “This Anthropological Life” on WBRS to hear more!



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