Flat Feet, Clever Hands

Alison Jolly

  • Lowly Origin: Where, When and Why Our Ancestors First Stood Up by Jonathan Kingdon
    Princeton, 396 pp, £22.95, May 2003, ISBN 0 691 05086 4

Six million years ago, Kenya’s Mombasa beach. You and I forage in the leaf litter of the coastal forest. Every few seconds we pop insects into our mouths. We squat on our haunches, shuffling forward as we feed. You lift a rotting log with one hand and pry out juicy grubs with your other forefinger. I munch a mushroom, then strip a spiny ground herb to yield a mouthful of sweet white pith. Our arms are so long that we needn’t bend over to reach these titbits. Our spines are mostly erect above our buttocks. Our pelvises are somewhat basin-shaped to hold up the guts we are so busy filling, instead of being flanged like those of our cousins the chimpanzees, who are mere quadrupeds with bellies that hang down from more horizontal backbones. Our heads balance on top of our spines instead of jutting forward. We waddle over to a fig tree and climb it to gorge on ripe fruit. We climb easily, and we’ll sleep upstairs tonight in nests we weave of broken branches, but we soon clamber down again because we feel more at home on the ground where we don’t have to hang on. Sated, you roll over on your back on the forest floor while I pick through your fur.

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[*] The aquatic theory explains our nakedness (which suits life in water but neither heat nor cold on land), our insulation by a layer of subcutaneous fat, and our sweat. Sweating – we are almost the only mammals that do – demands an environment rich in water and salt, both scarce on the savannah. Our ancestors probably didn’t frolic with the dolphins, but they just might have been fat hairless wading apes.