By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fossils from Greece and Bulgaria of an
ape-like creature that lived 7.2 million years ago may
fundamentally alter the understanding of human origins, casting
doubt on the view that the evolutionary lineage that led to
people arose in Africa.
Scientists said on Monday the creature, known as Graecopithecus
freybergi and known only from a lower jawbone and an isolated
tooth, may be the oldest-known member of the human lineage that
began after an evolutionary split from the line that led to
chimpanzees, our closest cousins.
The jawbone, which included teeth, was unearthed in 1944 in
Athens. The premolar was found in south-central Bulgaria in 2009.
The researchers examined them using sophisticated new techniques
including CT scans and established their age by dating the
sedimentary rock in which they were found.
They found dental root development that possessed telltale human
characteristics not seen in chimps and their ancestors, placing
Graecopithecus within the human lineage, known as hominins. Until
now, the oldest-known hominin was Sahelanthropus, which lived 6-7
million years ago in Chad.
The scientific consensus long has been that hominins originated
in Africa. Considering the Graecopithecus fossils hail from the
Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean may have given rise to the
human lineage, the researchers said.
The findings in no way call into question that our species, Homo
sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago and
later migrated to other parts of the world, the researchers said.
“Our species evolved in Africa. Our lineage may not have,” said
paleoanthropologist Madelaine Böhme of Germany’s University of
Tübingen, adding that the findings “may change radically our
understanding of early human/hominin origin.”
Homo sapiens is only the latest in a long evolutionary hominin
line that began with overwhelmingly ape-like species, followed by
a succession of species acquiring more and more human traits over
University of Toronto paleoanthropologist David Begun said the
possibility that the evolutionary split occurred outside Africa
is not incongruent with later hominin species arising there.
“We know that many of the mammals of Africa did in fact originate
in Eurasia and dispersed into Africa at around the time
Graecopithecus lived,” Begun said. “So why not Graecopithecus as
Graecopithecus is a mysterious species because its fossils are so
sparse. It was roughly the size of a female chimp and dwelled in
a relatively dry mixed woodland-grassland environment, similar to
today’s African savanna, alongside antelopes, giraffes, rhinos,
elephants, hyenas and warthogs.
The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)
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