A comparative study of muscle activity and synergies during walking in baboons and humans

Francois Druelle*, Marco Ghislieri*, Pablo Molina-Vila, Brigitte Rimbaud, Valentina Agostini, Gilles Berillon
Journal of Human Evolution

Bipedal locomotion was a major functional change during hominin evolution, yet, our understanding of this gradual and complex process remains strongly debated. Based on fossil discoveries, it is possible to address functional hypotheses related to bipedal anatomy, however, motor control remains intangible with this approach. Using comparative models which occasionally walk bipedally has proved to be relevant to shed light on the evolutionary transition toward habitual bipedalism. Here, we explored the organization of the neuromuscular control using surface electromyography (sEMG) for six extrinsic muscles in two baboon individuals when they walk quadrupedally and bipedally on the ground. We compared their muscular coordination to five human subjects walking bipedally. We extracted muscle synergies from the sEMG envelopes using the nonnegative matrix factorization algorithm which allows decomposing the sEMG data in the linear combination of two non-negative matrixes (muscle weight vectors and activation coefficients). We calculated different parameters to estimate the complexity of the sEMG signals, the duration of the activation of the synergies, and the generalizability of the muscle synergy model across species and walking conditions. We found that the motor control strategy is less complex in baboons when they walk bipedally, with an increased muscular activity and muscle coactivation. When comparing the baboon bipedal and quadrupedal pattern of walking to human bipedalism, we observed that the baboon bipedal pattern of walking is closer to human bipedalism for both baboons, although substantial differences remain. Overall, our findings show that the muscle activity of a nonadapted biped effectively fulfills the basic mechanical requirements (propulsion and balance) for walking bipedally, but substantial refinements are possible to optimize the efficiency of bipedal locomotion. In the evolutionary context of an expanding reliance on bipedal behaviors, even minor morphological alterations, reducing muscle coactivation, could have faced strong selection pressure, ultimately driving bipedal evolution in hominins.

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