Fri, May 31, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Exploding stars led to humans walking on two legs

The Guardian

It was the evolutionary leap that defined the species: While other apes ambled around on all fours, the ancestors of humans rose up on two legs and, from that lofty position, went on to conquer the world.

The benefits of standing tall in the African savannah are broadly nailed down, but what prompted our distant forebears to walk upright is far from clear.

Now, in a radical proposal, US scientists point to a cosmic intervention: protohumans had a helping hand from a flurry of exploding stars, they say.

A series of stars in our corner of the Milky Way exploded in a cosmic riot that began about 7 million years ago and continued for millions of years more, the researchers said.

The supernovae blasted powerful cosmic rays in all directions. On Earth, the radiation arriving from the cataclysmic explosions peaked about 2.6 million years ago.

The surge of radiation triggered a chain of events, the scientists argue. As cosmic rays battered the planet, they ionized the atmosphere and made it more conductive. This could have ramped up the frequency of lightning strikes, sending wildfires raging through African forests and making way for grasslands, they wrote in the Journal of Geology.

With fewer trees at hand in the aftermath, our ancient ancestors adapted and those who walked upright thrived.

That, at least, is the thinking.

In the history of human evolution, walking upright dates back at least 6 million years to Sahelanthropus tchadensis, a species with both ape and human features discovered from fossil remains found in Chad.

One prominent theory is that climate change transformed the landscape, leaving savannah where trees once stood.

One of the study’s authors, Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas, said ancient human relatives were already dabbling with standing upright before the effects of any supernovae took hold, but he believes the violent explosions still played a role.

“Bipedalism had already gotten started, but we think this may have given it a strong shot in the arm,” Melott said. “Lightning has long been thought to be the primary cause of fires before humans had a role and with a lot of fires you get the destruction of a lot of habitat. When the forests are replaced with grasslands, it then becomes an advantage to stand upright, so you can walk from tree to tree, and see over the tall grass for predators.”

The cosmic rays from one star known to have exploded about 164 light-years from Earth would have increased the ionization of the atmosphere 50-fold, the scientists calculated.

Cosmic rays ionize the atmosphere when they knock electrons out of the atoms and molecules they slam into in the air. They normally only ionize the upper reaches of the atmosphere, but powerful ones from nearby supernovae can penetrate the entire depth of the atmosphere, ionizing it all the way to the ground.

“We are sure this would have increased lightning strikes, but lightning initiation is not well understood, so we cannot put a number on it,” Melott said.

If the scientists are right, future supernovae could potentially trigger more wildfires on Earth, but the planet appears safe for the moment.

The nearest star on course to explode in the next billion years is Betelgeuse, one of the brightest in the constellation of Orion, which lies a safe 642 light-years away.

The researchers concede that more research is needed to understand if cosmic rays really do drive lightning.

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