‘Ardi’ Scientists Used LifeModeler’s Software to Understand How Earliest Hominid Moved

Researchers who spent 15 years studying the skeletal remains of “Ardi,” a hominid who lived 4.4 million years ago, turned to a specialized software developer in San Clemente, CA, to help them understand how the 110-pound, 4-foot female walked and moved.

Scientific papers about the nearly complete fossilized skeleton that were published this week have set off something of a media sensation over the ancient creature formally known as Ardipithecus ramidus. The discovery extends the fossil record of the human lineage to a point a million years before “Lucy,” the Australopithecus specimen that was the previous record holder. Perhaps more importantly, scientists were surprised to find that the oldest human ancestor walked upright on the ground. Many researchers had previously believed that such an early ancestor would be a “knuckle-walker” that moved about on all fours limbs, like modern chimpanzees.

Knee Simultation

Knee Simultation

Shawn McGuan, who founded LifeModeler in 2002, tells me he adapted the company’s bio-mechanical visualization software to help anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University to determine how Ardi’s joints fit together, and their range of motion. LifeModeler’s LifeMOD software is used mostly by orthopedic surgeons in computer-based modeling to plan and practice surgeries that replace knees, hips, and other joints.

McGuan says LifeModeler worked with Lovejoy to assemble 3-D images of Ardi’s bones, using the computer-based model to determine how they fit together and where different muscle groups attached to different bones. “Because the simulation is “physics-based,” according to McGuan, it helps researchers deduce what movements Ardi was capable of, based on her anatomy.”

Ardi Skeleton“We sat down with Owen, and put the bones together and laced muscles through the skeleton,” McGuan says. The program also allows the users to pull on various muscles to see how a foot or hand flexed and moved. “We showed the foot can grab branches and also walk efficiently.”

McGuan tells me LifeModeler “has had paying customers from day one.” He self-funded the company, which now has 20 employees, and raised about $2 million last year from investments by high-net-worth individuals and San Diego-based Huntington Capital. He is currently raising another $2 million. In addition to orthopedics and medical applications, McGuan says the modeling software is used by engineers to optimize the performance of golf clubs and other sports and recreational equipment, and by NASA in mission planning (to simulate spacewalk repairs to make sure that astronauts can physically perform certain tasks).

In an email that McGuan sent today to investors and others, he explains, “Our work involved using LifeMOD simulation to recreate ARDI and answer the question: How could a foot which could grasp a branch, also walk efficiently? This is an age-old question that our simulations were able to shed some light on.”

McGuan says the LifeMOD simulation program will also be featured in a one-hour TV special, “Discovering Ardi,” scheduled for 9 p.m., Sunday Oct. 11 on the Discovery Channel.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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6 responses to “‘Ardi’ Scientists Used LifeModeler’s Software to Understand How Earliest Hominid Moved”

  1. amy says:

    hey this is so cool and this ancestor is so cool

  2. Mike Licht says:

    Ardi’s robust thumb musculature and flexible midcarpal (wrist) joint are perfect for text-messaging.



  3. Thanks for that comment. I laughed out loud!

  4. mark flowers says:

    Noticing that arms are much longer hands reach knees! elbows reach the waist..hands much larger and fingers longer.. seems it must have walked bent over some.. for the hands to reach the ground maybe?!

  5. Sarah says:

    No, I read somewhere that anthropologists and the people working on Ardi that they believe he was bipedal, meaning he walked upright. His foramen magnum was more forward on the skull than apes, which allowed him to be upright.

  6. Sarah says:

    Qualifying my previous statement…

    Yes, they were quadrupeds predominantly. They were arboreal; the divergent big toe was used to grasp, which suggests a lot of time in trees. But they were capable of bipedalism, just not to the extent that Lucy was or the hominids after that.