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How Climbing Really Began, in Africa, Asia and the Americas

Anthropologists are disproving Euro-centric ideas about the origins of climbing

Photo by: Getty Images

Climbing was not born in western Europe in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, as the colonialist European story goes, with very few variations. New research shows that our rock climbing ways actually began in Africa millions of years ago, when a hominid, a primate ancestor of homo sapiens, put their hands on the hard, vertical surface of the earth and moved upwards, using skills and physical adaptations that evolved over eons of tree-climbing. Much later, the first surviving works of art proved out close relationship to the rocks: a hand on the rock outlined with a spray of pigment. Our African ancestors, it turns out, were superb climbers who used their rock skills for hunting, safety, and ceremonial purposes.

The Rift Valley, in Africa, Getty Images

Stretch out your forearm. Now turn your hand in either direction. Most people can turn it 180 degrees. It’s an ability that evolved only for climbing, although it turned out to be useful for a variety of other tasks, from throwing projectiles to tool making.  We have it because before we could run, make tools or fire, we were climbers.

Six million years ago, the Indian and Asian tectonic plates pushed into each other and created the Tibetan Plateau. The new, high plateau heated up so much from solar energy that it created global convection winds. The moisture from the Indian Ocean that had once made eastern Africa into a dense lush forest was sucked towards Tibet.

At the same time, a rift valley formed over a line of softer magma in a line from Ethiopia to South Africa. The mountains and cliffs it forced upwards included Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ruwenzori. Some geologists have referred to this obstacle as The Wall of Africa, and it became an obstacle to any moisture from the Indian Ocean reaching inland. The wall also formed the dividing line between primates like gorillas, chimpanzees and baboons and our earliest ancestors, the hominins. 4.4 million years ago, the earliest known hominin, Ardipithecus ramidus split from apes, 2.5 million years ago, the first fossil evidence of genus homo.

And so, we descended from the trees, thinned by the drying atmosphere, as specialized climbers, not onto a flat savannah, but into a complex land of rocks, cliffs and hills with a topography geologists have compared to the famous rock climbing area of Snowdonia in Wales. Anthropologists are now considering how ancient rock climbing made humans who we are.

Llyn Ogwen, Snowdonia, Wales, Getty Images

“Climbing down from trees and striding across the savannah heroically seemed a dangerous way of being upright, and in any case,” says anthropologist Isabelle Winder, a professor at Bangor University in Wales,  “the terrain was very rough and you couldn’t just stride out.” The evidence of human fossils is preponderantly in rocky, complex topographical areas. Winder has shown how early adaptations in hominins could be adjustments to the rocky environment. Many of the adaptations that separated hominins from panins (monkeys, Chimpanzees and apes), can be easily explained by climbing behaviour. Examples are a more upright stance, a shortening of the upper limbs, a compromise between adaptations for flexibility and grasping ability and those entailing rigidity and leverage during terrestrial locomotion on uneven surfaces.

Winder’s PhD student, Scott Garnett, is a climber who has looked into the various functions that our reveal our climbing background. “We learned to squat, run, throw things all at different times,” says Garnett. “It’s very well to say we were born to run, but our climbing background gave us many of the things, like our glutes in particular, that you really need to run,” says Garnett, “in a sense, we’ve been climbing for 20 million years and running for two.”

Further climbing adaptations could be either more permanent, or happen over a matter of generations. “Phenotypic plasticity, the ability to change body form and function with some genes,” said Garnett, “allowed and still allows certain climbing populations, like the Twaa people, to have unusual levels of ankle flexion. They routinely climb trees, and their bodies have adapted to climb better.”

Tellem Settlements, Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali, Getty Images

Humans have “never been well defended,” says Garnett, “we have no claws and teeth. Climbing would have helped us gain safe places, and see some distance to watch for dangers. Negotiating the complex [climbing] environment would develop spatial awareness and the perception of risk and danger and contribute to the development of the brain. Yes, we became a running species eventually, but climbing could have pre-adapted us for running later.”

The cliffs, rocks, caves, steep riverbeds and canyons of east Africa, where humans evolved, offered safety, food and experience in coping with a variety of different types of terrain and prepared them for the great migrations to come. Intriguingly, when these immigrations first happened, our ancestors did not take the flattest routes, but followed lines of the kind of complex rocky topography akin to the Rift Valley.

The rocky terrain held a special fascination for some of our African ancestors. Homo Naledi, a primate with a smaller brain size than modern humans that lived until about 250,000 years ago in the limestone karst of the Malmani Dolomites in South Africa, left behind the earliest existing fossil evidence of rock climbing skills. For some tens of thousands of years, Homo Naledi brought their dead to the Rising Star Cave. In 2013, the Dinaledi burial chamber was first re-discovered, not by anthropologists, but by cavers Rick Hunter and Steve Tucker. Well-equipped local cavers had been visiting and mapping the Rising Star cave system since the 1960s.

The chamber is 35 metres below the surface. After negotiating the opening passages, a narrow horizontal passage that barely allows modern humans is followed by a steep, 20-metre high ridge on an enormous block that came loose from the chert layer ceiling long before Homo Naledi came there. Another very narrow horizontal section leads to a vertical, technical downclimb of a 15-metre aven, as chimneys are known to cavers. Hom Naledi had to reclimb it to reach the surface, although on the return trip, they would not be encumbered by the corpse they had brought for burial.

Pictographs on Huashan Mountain, China, Getty Images

Despite a lack of evidence that the corpses could have gotten there by any means besides climbing, some anthropologists objected that there must be a different explanation, mostly because they had little sense of what was possible for climbers. One academic asked, “if it’s really that hard to get to the cave, how do you get to that long dark cave carrying your dead grandmother?” yet, the difficulties in reaching the Dinaledi chamber are likely at the lowest end of the technical climbing scale, and for hominins in the Malmadi Dolomites, carrying a body over steep terrain would have been no more rigorous than scaling local rocks with game or foraged foods.

The climbing prowess of Homo Naledi was finally proven in 2015, when a second cave with Homo Naledi fossil remains was found, 80 metres away from the Dinaledi chamber. The Lesedi chamber can only be reached via a difficult squeeze and technical down-climb. The discovery of a second site proved that the remains in the first site had been taken there deliberately. The Homo Naledi were talented rock explorers.

By 37,000 years ago, modern humans had migrated throughout Eurasia. Evidence of early human technical climbing in caves and on cliffs spread from Africa to France, to China and Indonesia.

Anasazi cliff-art, Utah, Getty Images

Brilliant acts of rock climbing both solo and with improvised equipment flourished as prehistoric societies became more sophisticated. The first portrayals of rope used for climbing are in 45,000 year-old cave art.  The so-called Fissure Ornée in Exteberri-ko-koria in Spain is a 14-metre crack which most modern climbers would only attempt with a rope, but partway down, the first climbers stopped to paint pictures of prey. From the cliff paintings of Sarawak to the Luoye River pictographs on Huashan Mountain in China, to the climbing competitions of Easter Island and the achievements of Inca alpinists, whose fifteenth-century altitude record was not equalled by Europeans until the nineteenth century, to the Anasazi rock climbers of the American southwest and the Dogon climbers of Africa, climbing flourished and grew, long before it became a hobby in western societies.  Perhaps that’s what explains its appeal throughout history and across cultures and why anthropologists like Winder and Garnett are re-assessing its role in how humans became who we are.

Lead photo: Getty Images