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Last Ape Standing

The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived

By Chip Walter
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Last Ape Standing by Chip Walter

Last Ape Standing (2013) tracks the journey of the evolution of human beings. It starts seven million years ago when the jungle habitat of our early ancestors began to recede. This began a process which saw our forbears start walking upright, develop large brains and use tools for the first time.

The process continued over millions of years, and eventually humanoids with large brains left Africa to migrate across the world. The last of these many migrations was our species, Homo sapiens, the first species we know to have the capacity for culture. And this capacity, along with the ability to learn, enabled us to become the last apes standing.

Key idea 1 of 8

Mutations in the big toe made it possible for our ancestors to walk upright.

Seven million years ago, the world was in the midst of a massive transformation. Changes in the climate were transforming vast areas of the African rainforest into less densely wooded grasslands known as savannas

This development hugely impacted the apes living in the changing environment, and presented them with a completely new set of problems. 

Like the modern Chimpanzee, the rainforest apes gathered their food from the trees – berries, nuts and fruits – and, as they developed, their big toes would curve so that they could grasp the trees’ trunks and branches. But in the sparsely wooded environment of the savannas, the apes’ nimble climbing ability was no longer essential, as hanging fruit was less prevalent and there were fewer trees to climb. 

Another problem was that the threat of predators was much greater in the savannas than it was in the rainforest. 

Then evolution intervened. 

A genetic mutation occurred in some of the rainforest apes which stopped the big toe from curling during their development. This was a crucial stage in the apes’ evolution. Because a straight big toe can support much more weight than a curled one (our big toes support 30% of our weight) having straight big toes was a vital trait for apes: it enabled our ancestors to walk upright. 

But the benefits of having straight big toes don’t end there. It also gave apes the ability to run, jump and change direction swiftly, and to stand tall and survey their surroundings, allowing for a better view of both predators and prey. All of these are crucial attributes for surviving the harsh and challenging savanna environment.

But the mutation of the big toe was just the first step in a series of evolutionary adaptations that enable us humans to live the upright, dynamic lives that we do. Later developments occurred in the neck and pelvic area, the latter of which led to much narrower hips.

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