Mankind might have walked out of Africa but their ape ancestors walked in there from Europe, a new study has sensationally claimed.
A new ape from nearly nine million years ago has been discovered in Turkey and is related to living African apes and humans.
The find underscores a theory that apes developed in Europe for around five million years before migrating to Africa where modern humans developed.
The ape, Anadoluvius turkae, is around 8.7 million years old, about the size of a female gorilla and probably lived on the ground in a dry forest setting.
It was surrounded by what we now call African animals such as giraffes, wart hogs, rhinos, antelopes, zebras, elephants, porcupines, hyaenas and lion-like carnivores.
Scientists now believe that Anadoluvius followed them from the eastern Mediterranean into Africa some time after about eight million years ago.
A team from the University of Toronto studied a well-preserved skull of Anadoluvius recovered from the Çorakyerler fossil locality near Çankırı in 2015.
Mediterranean fossil apes are diverse and are part of the first known radiation of early hominines – the group that includes African apes such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, humans and their fossil ancestors.
Modern humans, or homo sapiens, began to leave Africa around 180,000 years ago though they are thought to have evolved about 300,000 years ago.
Study author Professor David Begun at the University of Toronto said: “Our findings further suggest that hominines not only evolved in western and central Europe but spent over five million years evolving there and spreading to the eastern Mediterranean before eventually dispersing into Africa, probably as a consequence of changing environments and diminishing forests.
“The members of this radiation to which Anadoluvius belongs are currently only identified in Europe and Anatolia.”
Prof Begun added: “The completeness of the fossil allowed us to do a broader and more detailed analysis using many characters and attributes that are coded into a program designed to calculate evolutionary relationships.
“The face is mostly complete, after applying mirror imaging. The new part is the forehead, with bone preserved to about the crown of the cranium. Previously described fossils do not have this much of the brain case.”
Co-author Professor Ayla Sevim Erol at Ankara University continued: “We have no limb bones but judging from its jaws and teeth, the animals found alongside it, and the geological indicators of the environment, Anadoluvius probably lived in relatively open conditions, unlike the forest settings of living great apes.
“More like what we think the environments of early humans in Africa were like. The powerful jaws and large, thickly enameled teeth suggest a diet including hard or tough food items from terrestrial sources such as roots and rhizomes.
“The founding of the modern African open country fauna from the eastern Mediterranean has long been known and now we can add to the list of entrants the ancestors of the African apes and humans.”
Although African apes today are only known from Africa, as are the earliest known humans, the study’s authors concluded that the ancestors of both came from Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
Anadoluvius and other fossil apes from nearby Greece (Ouranopithecus) and Bulgaria (Graecopithecus) form a group that come closest in many details of anatomy and ecology to the earliest known hominins, or humans.
The new fossils are the best-preserved specimens of this group of early hominines and provide the strongest evidence to date that the group originated in Europe and later dispersed into Africa.
The study’s detailed analysis also reveals that the Balkan and Anatolian apes evolved from ancestors in western and central Europe.
The research provides evidence that these other apes were also hominines and means that it is more likely that the whole group evolved and diversified in Europe.
This contradicts the alternative scenario in which separate branches of apes earlier moved independently into Europe from Africa over the course of several million years, and then went extinct without issue.
Prof Begun said: “There is no evidence of the latter, though it remains a favourite proposal among those who do not accept a European origin hypothesis.
“These findings contrast with the long-held view that African apes and humans evolved exclusively in Africa.
“While the remains of early hominines are abundant in Europe and Anatolia, they are completely absent from Africa until the first hominin appeared there about seven million years ago.
“This new evidence supports the hypothesis that hominines originated in Europe and dispersed into Africa along with many other mammals between nine and seven million years ago, though it does not definitively prove it.
“For that, we need to find more fossils from Europe and Africa between eight and seven million years old to establish a definitive connection between the two groups.”
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