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

11 August 2017, 01:45 | Bernard Bryant

Alesi partially excavated after careful removal of loose sand and rocks with dental picks and brushes. Credit Isaiah Nengo

Alesi partially excavated after careful removal of loose sand and rocks with dental picks and brushes.
Isaiah Nengo

Relevant fossils are scarce, consisting mostly of isolated teeth and partial jaw bones-making it hard to find answers to two fundamental questions: Did the common ancestor of living apes and humans originate in Africa, and what did these early ancestors look like?

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

It is extremely uncommon to find fossil primate skulls, especially those belonging to apes. However, the size of the skull and teeth do suggest that if Alesi had reached adulthood, it would have weighed about 24.9 lbs.

"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. But we know far less about the ancestors that we share with modern apes - which lived more than 10 million years ago.

The research appears in the journal Nature. Members of a team led by paleoanthropologist Isaiah Nengo estimated the fossil's age by assessing radioactive forms of the element argon in surrounding rock, which decay at a known rate.

This dental analysis allowed the researchers to link this specimen to a genus known as Nyanzapithecus-a "sister" group of hominids that includes gibbons, great apes, and humans, and a possible last common ancestor of all living apes (more on this in just a bit). Less is known about human and ape ancestors living before 10 million years ago. Fossil evidence from this part of the primate family tree is scarce, and consists mostly of isolated teeth and broken jaw fragments.

Determining that the last common ancestors of living apes and humans originated in Africa is important because it helps scientists better understand how ancient climate, ecology, geography and other factors were key to their evolution.

"The Napudet locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago", study co-author Craig Feibel, chair of the anthropology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said in a statement. Reconstructing the history of that branch, however, has been hard, mainly because the forests those common ancestors once lived weren't great at preserving fossils. "It also provided us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil". While most of those evolutionary branches died off about 7 million years ago as the climate changed, one line remained, later branching into great apes, like chimps, gorillas and eventually humans.

In September 2015, about a year after the fossil was excavated, Nengo obtained government clearance to hand-carry the skull from Kenya to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

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"The quality of our images was so good that we could establish from the teeth that the infant was about one year and four months old when it died", said Tafforeau.

Comparisons with other African ape fossils indicate that the infant's skull belongs to a new species that the researchers named Nyanzapithecus alesi. The species name is taken from the Turkana word for ancestor "ales".

Prior to the discovery, the species were only known from their teeth, and there were questions whether or not they were really apes. "Importantly, the cranium has fully developed bony ear tubes, an important feature linking it with living apes", adds Ellen Miller of Wake Forest University.

The skull, only about the size of a lemon, resembles that of a baby gibbon, although Alesi is not thought to be related to the Asian primates.

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

The balance organ inside the inner ears suggests the new species was certainly not gibbon-like in the way it behaved.

"Gibbons are well known for their fast and acrobatic behavior in trees", said Fred Spoor, of University College London and the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology.

Alesi is now back in Kenya.Nengo said he plans to continue fieldwork there and also to use Alesi as "kind of an anchor" for the study of babies and the role of babies in the evolution of apes and humans.

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