“Ardi” (short for Ardipithecus ramidus) is a fossil of one of our earliest pre-human ancestors. Most likely female, she lived 4.4 million years ago. Over the last several years a team of researchers has studied her remains and finally presented their findings to the world via Science Magazine .
In Ardi we catch a glimpse of one of the earliest moments in human evolution. More specifically, we see the beginning of bipedalism or upright walking. Scientists know that Ardi walked upright because her bones tell them. In particular, the hole in her skull where her spine connects is on the bottom. This shows that her head rested on top of her spine like ours does. A hole closer to the back of the skull would indicate that her head was positioned in front as with present day apes or our knuckle walking ancestors.
Over the last four million years, natural selection expertly tinkered with the mechanics of posture to bring us what we often take for granted today: our long, gently curving, upright spine. Wang, et al in the Journal of Human Evolution described our spines this way, “The vertebral column of humans takes a forward bend in the lumbar (lower) region and a backward bend in the thoracic (upper) region. Without the lumbar curve, the vertebral column would always lean forward, a position that requires much more muscular effort for bipedal animals. With a forward bend, humans use less muscular effort to stand and walk upright.”
When upright, the shape and position of our spine is efficient and requires little effort to hold. As the bones in our spine line up, so too do the muscles, nerves and other soft tissues surrounding it. The problem is that we don’t keep our spine in its natural alignment much of the time. With the advent of the chair and then later the computer, we began to slouch. In a seated slouch our heads are positioned in front instead of on top of our spine, our upper back becomes more rounded and the curve in our lower back disappears. Our head is no longer on its base and an imbalance of tissues occurs. Our muscles have to work harder and other tissues have more stress on them. If we stay like this for too long, sitting apelike at our computers, we push these tissues beyond their limit and that leads to problems, like pain, headaches, numbness and tingling in our limbs. Doing this day after day, these problems can become chronic.
So, what is the answer? We need to keep our heads up and maintain the natural curves of our spines especially when we are sitting. The best way to do this is to use ergonomics; that is, to change our workstations to fit our bodies instead of the other way around. We also need to keep our spine strong and supported in its natural alignment through exercise.
So, lets keep our heads up and remember Ardi and the progress our species has made in becoming upright. We will be honoring nature’s glorious design and in the meantime saving ourselves a whole lot of neck and back pain.
Watch this short video about Ardi’s spine: