Fossils cast doubt on human lineage originating in Africa

Graecopithecus jaw

Graecopithecus jaw

This bold conclusion comes from a study of Greek and Bulgarian fossils, suggesting that the most mysterious of all ancient European apes was actually a human ancestor, or hominin.

At least, that's what most researchers think happened.

Led by Madelaine Böhme and Nikolai Spassov, a team of researchers analyzed two specimens of the fossil hominid Graecopithecus freybergi: a lower jaw from Greece and an upper premolar from Bulgaria.

According to an worldwide research team headed by Professor Madelaine Böhme from the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen and Professor Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the salts found in the dust also show these remains to be from the Mediterranean region.

For now, there is no way to know whether Graecopithecus jaws and teeth belonged to an ape with some hominid-like features or a hominid with some apelike features, says paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The research, with its claim to offer "intriguing evidence of what could be the oldest known hominin", is published in PLOS ONE ("Potential hominin affinities of Graecopithecus from the Late Miocene of Europe").

As with the out-of-East-Africa theory, the evolution of pre-humans may have been driven by dramatic environmental changes.

Although scientists agree in the value of the recent study in its analysis of the species, not everyone is convinced that the Graecopithecus could be definitively classified as a hominin with the current data, according to a report from New Scientist. Considering the Graecopithecus fossils hail from the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean may have given rise to the human lineage, the researchers said. The jawbone of this creature showed that it was closer to humans than apes.

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There has been a long time standing consensus within the scientific community that hominins originated in Africa. In that case, root fusion in Graecopithecus, as found in later fossil hominids, indicates a direct evolutionary connection, Begun says.

"The incipient formation of a desert in North Africa more than seven million years ago and the spread of savannahs in Southern Europe may have played a central role in the splitting of the human and chimpanzee lineages", said Bohme. "The canine root was very short", Begun said. This proved that Graecopithecus is of human lineage which is known as Hominins.

Go back 12 or more million years ago and Europe was an ape's paradise.

Fossilised jaw (l) and premolar (r) of Graecopithecus. We only have a jaw bone and a tooth, and the researchers were only able to identify one physical feature, focussing on the roots of the teeth.

The new evidence does, potentially, cast the earliest potential hominins from Africa in a new light, says John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The team also did additional work to date the two Graecopithecus fossils by analysing sediments from the two sites in Greece and Bulgaria.

Using micro-computed tomography and 3D reconstructions of the roots and internal structure of the fossilised teeth, the scientists found features characteristic of modern humans and their early ancestors.

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