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Why do humans move and travel? The evolutionary and biological origins of human movement point to the fundamental needs of animals to capture food for sustenance, to reproduce and to defend themselves from predatory attack. The evolution of animal locomotion is rooted in these primeval needs.

But are there aspects of human movement that are distinct?

Movement is the most fundamental feature of animals. Plants can be stationary and enjoy a long and healthy life rooted to the earth. Animals move. If you had to limit your study of humans to two essential features of existence, they would be eating and movement.  Dr Stephen Gislason, Language and Thinking (2011)

Key Aspects

Impulses for Movement

Biologists suggest that patterns of animal movement are driven by basic needs, including food, reproduction, and survival from attack. Some predatory animals move by stealth; others use movement as a means of defence or disguise themselves by not moving at all and blending into the background. From slugs to birds, fish to cheetah, animals move in a huge variety of different ways, on wings, legs, fins and more. Some have homes to which they return after hunting and foraging, others wander freely, or within large territories they defend against rivals. Yet others migrate vast distances to makes use of resources at breeding and feeding grounds many thousands of miles apart. Such travel requires not only efficient modes of locomotion but also effective navigation systems, based on the sun and moon, magnetic fields, currents and scents.

Human Bipedalism

Humans have evolved as bipedal animals, capable of travelling long distances in our search for food and territory. Even amongst other bipedal animals, the human gait is unique. Science author Hans Villarica notes that many paleoanthropologists believe our style of locomotion was a crucial starting point in human evolution. ‘Our ancestors probably did not have much larger brains than the chimps, nor did they have much more sophisticated hands. What initially separated them and us from other primates was habitual erect, bipedal locomotion.’

Our bipedal body form is adapted well not only for striding and running, but also for climbing, scrambling, swimming and throwing. But although our way of walking is unique amongst living primates, there are many variations within our species. Gender differences
exist: women and men have different gaits or styles of movement, relating to differences in pelvic design. Differences also exist between individuals and groups, partly due to our evolutionary history but also our learned behaviours and the way we use our bodies. Culturally learned behaviour thus shapes our anatomy, just as our anatomy shapes our behaviour.

As infants we learn to move like adults…And like other learned things, there are many ways of walking, they differ by place and by circumstance. Professor Jonathan M. Marks, The biological myth of human evolution (2012)

Evolutionary Benefits

Around 2 million years ago our ancestors became obligate bipeds, as we are today. The exact reasons for this shift are much debated but it is clear that the fully erect, bipedal stance had some evolutionary advantages. Bipedalism is more energy efficient for long distance travel than quadrupedalism. Bipedalism allowed the freeing of the hands and arms for other uses including tool use and carrying things, whether food, tools or babies. Our sweat glands also enable us to travel longer distances without overheating. Such are our endurance capabilities that we are capable of outrunning antelope over the course of a day and pursuing them to exhaustion. An erect stance may also have been an advantage in seeing over tall grasses and looking into the distance for threats and opportunities. The fossil record also shows that other traits we think of as defining humans, like our large brains, hands and speech, all occurred after the development of obligate bipedalism and were likely linked to bipedalism in some way. All of these features have allowed us – and driven us – to travel far and wide across the globe. Since early in our evolutionary history, human travel has been enabled by our technologies and our ability to communicate and cooperate, and spurred on by our curiosity and imagination.


Movement and Health

The human body is designed for movement rather than a sedentary lifestyle. Moderate physical movement has been shown to have a range of benefits, from strengthening muscles and joints, to better cardiovascular and mental health, and more healthy brain ageing. A lack of physical activity can cause numerous health problems and this is an increasing problem globally as more people live sedentary lifestyles. The WHO (World Health Organisation) states that physical inactivity may be the cause of up to 5 million deaths per year.

All organisms search for food and mates. But we search for purely intellectual reasons. We’re constantly tinkering. We can’t stand still. Professor Charles Pasternak, Oxford International Biomedical Centre

Practical Implications

  • Like other animals, humans have a fundamental need for movement. The need to provide food and sustenance, find a partner, and adapt to threats continues to motivate human movement today.
  • We are also motivated to travel for reasons relating to our large brain – our curiosity and sociability.
  • The human body has evolved for travel over long distances. Even today, we experience a ‘high’ from prolonged exercise, due to the release of pain-relieving endorphins in the brain.
  • Our bipedal mode of locomotion enabled early human migration across the globe. This has enabled us to adapt successfully to environmental change, migrating vast distances to find land suitable for habitation. During the last glacial period, when sea levels were lower, human migration reached every continent on Earth except Antarctica.
  • Movement is important for human health. In an increasingly sedentary society, human powered movement has an increasing role in preventing obesity and health problems.

Further Reading/Resources

John Archer and Lynda Birke, (eds), Exploration in Animals and Humans (1993)
Good introduction to the basics of animal movement.

Charles Pasternak, Quest: The Essence of Humanity (2003)
Argues that humanity’s defining feature is our unceasing desire to search and explore.

Dirk Brockmann et al., ‘The Scaling Laws of Human Travel’, Nature 439 (26 January 2006)
Explores the complex patterns that make up human movement.

Hans Villarica, ‘How humans and other animals learn to walk’, Atlantic Magazine, (Nov 17 2011)
Article suggests that the mechanisms of human movement are not as distinct as we might like to believe.

Key Questions

In what ways do the needs for food, safety and relationships drive our travel choices today?

What is the relationship between movement and human well-being: should these be taken into account when thinking of policies which aim to reduce travel?

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