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Ancient Ape Skull Sheds Light On Common Ancestors Of Humans And Apes

10 August 2017

Alesi partially excavated after careful removal of loose sand and rocks with dental picks and brushes. In contrast, humans themselves diverged from apes much later, sharing a last common ancestor with chimpanzees about 7 million years ago.

"This discovery will help to fill in missing information regarding the adaptations that influenced ape and human evolutionary histories, and shed light on long-standing mysteries about at least one enigmatic ape species".

While a lot is known about human evolution since we split from chimps about seven million years ago, little was known about common ancestors from before 10 million years ago.

A handful of bones and teeth had previously been found from the Nyanzapithecus species but scientists were unsure what the creature would have looked like, or how far back it went.

"We have a lovely ape cranium (skull) from a period that we knew virtually nothing about, and this is one of those wonderful cases where discovery leads to all sorts of new and interesting perspectives", says Craig Feibel, a professor of geology and anthropology at Rutgers University.

The skull was discovered at the Napudet dig site west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

Credit: trato/Shutterstock "The living apes are found all across Africa and Asia - chimps and gorillas in Africa, orangutans and gibbons in Asia - and there are many fossil apes found on both continents, and Europe as well", study co-author Christopher Gilbert, a paleoanthropologist at Hunter College in NY, told Live Science. "A nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil and countless trees".

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Numerous most informative parts of the skull are preserved inside the fossil.

Numerous most informative parts of the skull are preserved inside the fossil, and to make these visible the team used an extremely sensitive form of 3D X-ray imaging at the synchrotron facility in France.

The 13-million-year-old infant skull, which its discoverers nicknamed "Alesi", was unearthed in Kenya in 2014.

"This is an exceptional discovery", agreed Paul Tafforeau of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, who helped examine the skull.

While its baby teeth had been knocked out, Alesi's adult teeth lay unerupted inside its jaw, and their age could be determined with great precision - the ape was one year and four months old when it died.

Analysis of the infant's teeth suggests the ape belongs to a new species, Nyanzapithecus alesi.

The species name is taken from the Turkana word for ancestor 'ales'.

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Nyanzapithecines, a long-lived and diverse group of Miocene hominoids, are likely close to the first species of hominoids. The time period is known as the Miocene and it lasted from approximately 23 to 5 million years ago. "Until now, all Nyanzapithecus species were only known from teeth and it was an open question whether or not they were even apes", notes John Fleagle of Stony Brook University.

"There was some discussion for a while about whether the modern apes actually originated in Africa or in Eurasia, because gibbons today live in Southeast Asia, and this pretty squarely confirms that the origin of apes was in Africa". As noted, it looked very much like a gibbon, featuring a tiny mouth and nose relative to its head size.

"This gives the initial impression that it is an extinct gibbon", says Chris Gilbert of Hunter College.

Alesi's teeth and fully developed bony ear tubes showed its kinship to modern apes.

"One new fossil can totally change your perspective on things..."

The tiny find, about the size of a lemon, is one of the most complete skulls known of any extinct ape that inhabited Africa, Asia or Europe between 25 million and 5 million years ago, researchers report in the August 10 Nature. "I still am over the moon", said paleontologist Isaiah Nengo of New York-based Stony Brook University's Turkana Basin Institute and California's De Anza College.

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Ancient Ape Skull Sheds Light On Common Ancestors Of Humans And Apes