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Ancient humans and Neanderthals were extreme travellers

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

Ancient humans and Neanderthals walked or ran far greater distances than any human groups that followed, including more recent hunter-gatherers and today's long-distance runners, a new study has found.

Fossils of humans and their beetle-browed evolutionary cousins display signs of extremely extended travel that occurred roughly between 120,000 and 10,000 years ago, according to two new studies published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Researchers Colin Shaw and Jay Stock, biological anthropologists at the University of Cambridge, conclude that the Stone Age crowd moved around considerably more than southern Africans from a few thousand years ago who hunted over an area of 5,200 to 7,800 square kilometres.

Even the highly trained athletes today who run 130 to 160 kilometres every week come in third in this mobility comparison, 'Science News' reported.

Human ancestors started wandering long distances around 1.7 million years ago. The extent to which particular Stone Age species and groups roamed the landscape has been difficult to establish.

The study supports an argument for extreme mobility among ancient people and Neanderthals that has been championed over the last 15 years by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St Louis and Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins University.

According to Trinkaus, clues come from exceptionally robust leg bones, a dearth of older individuals in fossil samples suggesting that life spans were limited due to the rigours of constant travel, and an absence of skeletal injuries in excavated fossils that would have prevented vigorous movement.

Researchers used a calculation of the lower leg's ability to withstand twisting and other forces to compare Stone Age hominids' leg strength with that of human groups with known activity levels.

The researchers suggest that ancient human and Neanderthal legs substantially overpowered those of the hunter-gatherers, who had stronger legs than the other groups.

They say regular swimmers brought up the rear, perhaps partly because swimming emphasises upper - over lower-body strength.

Anthropologists do not know what kept ancient people and Neanderthals in constant motion. It could have been the hunt for spear-worthy rock, the second new study suggests.

First Published: Sun, March 10 2013. 17:55 IST