KU study theorizing that supernovae led to humans standing upright receives international attention

photo by: NASA

The NASA image shows the remains of a supernova that would have been witnessed on Earth about 3,700 years ago. A recent KU study theorizes that supernovae explosions about 2.6 million years ago set off a series of events that led to humans walking upright.

A new study announcing a staggering new finding — that a series of exploding stars led to humans standing upright — is bringing international attention to two local researchers.

“It’s exciting, I have to say,” said Adrian Melott, an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas. “It’s the strongest coverage (we’ve had).”

Along with Brian Thomas of Washburn University, Melott recently published the study explaining the duo’s discovery that a series of supernovae, the massive explosion of stars, between 8 million and 2.6 million years ago caused increased lightning activity on Earth.

That increased activity began a series of events on Earth that eventually led to humans standing upright rather than walking on all fours like our human ancestors, Melott said.

Melott said earlier astronomy studies discovered evidence shown in certain iron deposits on the planet’s seabed that supernovae explosions in Earth’s “relative neighborhood” — between 325 and 160 light years away — had occurred. With that knowledge, Melott and Thomas were able to discern that the supernovae caused the Earth’s atmosphere to be supercharged with electrons, which created more pathways for cloud-to-ground lightning strikes.

photo by: Richard Gwin

KU emeritus professor Adrian Melott, who published a study on how supernovae explosions led to humans standing upright, is pictured in 2014.

With more lightning came more fire, Melott said. Increased fires began massive burning events that turned areas where human ancestors lived from forests to grassy plains. The lack of trees made it harder for human ancestors to travel by climbing tree to tree, so they had to come down from the trees and walk across the plains to get to the next one.

But instead of using all fours as they used to, they began to use just two legs, Melott said.

“It’s much more energy efficient to walk on two legs,” he said.

Those human ancestors were also able to see over the grassland by standing and getting a long-distance view, rather than having to climb trees to do so. As time went on, and human ancestors continued to use the practices of walking upright, they eventually evolved into humans who only walk that way, Melott said.

Although the subsequent events outlined in the discovery are interesting, Thomas told the Journal-World via email he thought his main point of interest was finding the cause to an influx of fires on Earth.

“Our work offers a solution to the question of why there started to be so many more fires around the globe a few million years ago,” he said. “The fact that the fire rate increased has been well known, but there hasn’t been a good explanation of a cause, which we’ve provided.”

After the groundbreaking study was published on Tuesday, media reports on the findings spread nationwide. National media outlets NBC News, Fox News, CNN and many more reported on the subject.

“I think people have been excited about it because we’re connecting two things that seem so completely separated — exploding stars and human evolution,” Thomas said.

“I definitely think it’s exciting that our work has had so much press,” Thomas said. “We’ve done a lot of really cool work in the past and had press come out of it, but I think this is the biggest response we’ve had.”

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