Fossils of an ape that lived 8.7 million years ago in what is now Turkey are challenging long-accepted ideas of human origins.
The new discovery lends weight to the theory that the hominine lineage of apes (this includes hominins – humans and our direct ancestors – as well as modern great apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos) first evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa 7–9 million years ago.
Anadoluvius turkae was unearthed from the Çorakyerler fossil locality near Çankırı in northern Turkey, about 100 km northeast of the country’s capital, Ankara. The new genus is described in a paper published in Communications Biology.
“Hominines may have originated in Eurasia during the late Miocene, or they may have dispersed into Eurasia from an unknown African ancestor,” the authors write.
The European hypothesis may not be as out of left field as it sounds. Primates were quite common around the world tens of millions of years ago.
The world’s oldest known true primate, Purgatorius, lived in what is now Montana 65 million years go. The earliest primate known in Europe, Teilhardina belgica, is 56 million years old. This is older than the earliest remains of a primate found in Africa, Algeripithecus, which lived roughly 50 million years ago.
“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,” says co-author Professor David Begun at the University of Toronto. “The members of this radiation to which Anadoluvius belongs are currently only identified in Europe and Anatolia.”
Palaeontologists recovered a very well-preserved partial Anadoluvius cranium in 2015. The remains include most of the facial structure and the front part of the brain case.
“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,” Begun explains.
Anadoluvius was about 50–60 kg, the size of a large male chimpanzee. The researchers say it inhabited dry forest environments and likely spent a much of its time on forest floor.
It shared its dry ancient European forest habitat with animals commonly associated with African grasslands such as giraffes, wart hogs, rhinos, antelopes, zebras, elephants, porcupines, hyaenas and lion-like carnivores.
Previous research has shown that many of these iconic African animals originated in Europe before dispersing into Africa about 8 million years ago.
“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,” comments first author Professor Ayla Sevim-Erol from Ankara University.
Other fossil apes from Greece (Ouranopithecus) and Bulgaria (Graecopithecus) form a group with Anadoluvius closest in anatomy and ecology to the earliest hominins.
The analysis suggests that the apes in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean evolved from ancestors in western and central Europe. The authors contend that either hominines evolved and diversified in Europe, or that the group evolved earlier in Africa and moved into Europe before going extinct.
Begun says he is unconvinced by the latter alternative.
“These findings contrast with the long-held view that African apes and humans evolved exclusively in Africa,” Begun says. “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 9 and 7 million years ago, though it does not definitively prove it. For that, we need to find more fossils from Europe and Africa between 8 and 7 million years old to establish a definitive connection between the two groups.”