Published: Fri, August 11, 2017
Life&Culture | By Rose Hansen

Ancient infant skull yields insights into human-ape lineage

Ancient infant skull yields insights into human-ape lineage

The most complete extinct-ape skull ever found reveals what the last common ancestor of all living apes and humans might have looked like, according to a new study. So N. alesi was likely a slower-moving primate. In particular, Begun doesn't agree that Nyanzapithecines should be recognized as a distinct group, or that they were more modern than other known primates from the time, namely Proconsul (an extinct genus of primates that lived between 23 to 25 million years ago) and Ekembo (a similar genus that lived 20 to 17 million years ago).

A newly announced 13-million-year-old skull might help shed some light on where those ancestors came from and what they looked like.

Paleontologists have made great strides in detailing the evolution of humans since they first diverged from apes some 7 million years ago. Relevant fossils are scarce, consisting mostly of isolated teeth and partial jaw bones.

To say that scientists know very little about ancient apes would be a gross understatement.

Undeterred, Nengo, who had just spent two years at the University of Nairobi on a Fulbright scholarship, returned to Kenya and gathered a ragtag group of local fossil finders.

The skull-spotted by Kenyan fossil hunter John Ekusi in 13 million-year-old rock layers in the Napudet area, west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya in 2014-comes from an infant. 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 has therefore been 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?"

Craig S. Feibel of Rutgers University-New Brunswick says, "A nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil and countless trees", adding, "it provided us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil". "We have never had information about this before - it has always been a mystery", explained study co-author Ellen Miller.

It remains uncertain how Alesi died. Volcanic ash found around the fossil suggests it may have died during an eruption, but researchers can not be sure. "The quality of our images was so good that we could establish from the teeth that the infant was about 1 year and 4 months old when it died".

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The teeth in the skull reveal that Alesi belonged to a previously undiscovered species, now named Nyanzapithecus alesi, the Post reported. However, Alesi's teeth were much larger than those of other members of this genus, so the scientists declared that Alesi belonged to a new species, Nyanzipithecus alesi.

"What the discovery of Alesi shows", said lead author Isaiah Nengo, a professor of anthropology at De Anza College in California and Stony Brook University in NY, "is that this group was close to the origin of living apes and humans and that this origin was African".

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. "The cranium has fully developed bony ear tubes, an important feature linking it with living apes". "It helps us understand and reconstruct how and why a certain lineage might have evolved", Gilbert said.

A front view of the infant skull. However, the size of the skull and teeth do suggest that if Alesi had reached adulthood, it would have weighed about 24.9 lbs. The researchers also noted that Alesi's 6.16-cubic-inch (101 cubic centimeters) brain was about as big as that of a modern lemur of the same size.

Unlike the famously acrobatic gibbons of southern Asia, it would not have been adept at swinging from branches, evidence suggests.

Researchers detailed their discovery this week in the journal Nature.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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