3 Million Years Ago Toddlers Could Climb Trees, Making Them Even More Of A Handful Than Present-Day Babies

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More than 3 million years ago, humans didn’t have strollers or baby backpacks to help them transport their children from one place to another. Therefore, other devices had to be used. And, according to a new study, toddlers adept at climbing was the end result.

For any mother who has watched their child learn to climb before they walked, this is not news. Many babies will learn to pull themselves up on furniture — in fact, even over furniture — as they strive for independence.

However, for toddlers that lived more than 3 million years ago, being able to climb proficiently was likely important to their well-being and survival, according to a new study on the fossilized remains of a child that died millions of years ago.

As Live Science points out, ancient human toddlers “had a special grasping toe that helped them hold on to their mothers and escape into the trees.” This information is based on a new study published today in Science Advances.

The new information comes from research done on DIK-1-1, a “relatively complete 3.3 million-year-old skeleton of a 2.5- to 3-year-old female Australopithecus afarensis,” which was discovered in Dikika, Ethiopia. This skeleton is nicknamed Selam, which means “peace” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

Being able to climb a tree was vital to survival for babies born more than 3 million years ago
Featured image credit: Zeresenay AlemsegedScience Advances

However, it is this child’s foot bones that are of interest to researchers as her bones are the oldest and most complete samples ever found for the species to date.

According to the study, Selam’s foot closely resembles feet of present-day humans — with one difference. Selam’s big toe is curved, which makes it resemble the toe structure of a chimpanzee’s. However, Selam’s toe is still aligned to her other toes, unlike a chimpanzee’s.

Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and lead author of the study, explains the difference.

“So, it’s human-like in not sticking out to the side, but it had much more mobility and could probably wiggle and grab on to stuff. Not [as well as] a chimp, but certainly more than a human could.”

While it is likely that ancient toddlers were using this foot adaptation for climbing their mothers more than climbing trees, there is also the suggestion that tree-climbing was an important survival skill in ancient times.

“We also have fossils of very large predators,” said DeSilva. “I can’t image how they would have survived if they didn’t go into the trees at night.”

While the evidence does suggest that toddlers from more than 3 million years ago were adept at climbing trees, researchers still have to be careful with how they interpret the new information. As Will Harcourt-Smith, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, points out, missing cartilage pieces could also offer up more details about this early life-form. And, since the cartilage pieces have rotted away, some questions still cannot be answered.

“That makes it a little hard to say everything you might want to about how the joints work,” Harcourt-Smith told Live Science.

Interesting to note in this study is the fact that this toddler skeleton was affectionately known as “Lucy’s baby” because it was found in close proximity to the now well-known adult female Australopithecus afarensis fossil named Lucy which was found in 1974. However, the assumption that Selam could have been Lucy’s baby is incorrect since it has since been identified that Selam lived — and died — some 100,000 years before Lucy was even born.