The oldest human ancestors may be European and much older than previously thought

Introduction:

New research suggests that the earliest human ancestors may have evolved in Europe hundreds of thousands of years before African hominids.  This evidence contradicts the current scientific consensus that Humans evolved in Africa and migrated later to Europe.

Background:

The common ancestor of Humans and our closest relatives, Chimpanzees, is an elusive piece of evidence.  However, this does not cast doubt on the fact that we do share a common ancestor.  Many separate lines of robust evidence converge on an interpretation of humans and chimpanzees being evolutionary cousins.

Furthermore, gaps in the fossil record are expected, since fossilization is far from guaranteed.  Even when fossils are formed, their preservation and forthrightness in the geologic record is also dubious.

So, scientists must be ingenuitive in their research and develop insightful, objective proxies.  One new study has done just that to examine early hominid evolution (Fuss et al., 2017).  Researchers have analyzed the morphology of fossilized molar roots using 3D digitizations to better categorize our earliest ancestors (Figure 1).

This new study suggests that the prevailing view of hominid evolution in Africa might be incorrect.

3D digital representations of hominid jaws and molars
Figure 1: Photographs of “El Graeco” mandibles (top) and 3D digitizations that were used to assess the molar root morphologies.  From Fuss et al. (2017).  

Discussion of the new research:

Molars are very useful in assessing our ancestral origins.  The hard calcification of molars lends itself to better fossilization and preservation than most bones.  This is because scavengers don’t typically gnaw away at these annoying hard parts and these hard bits decay slower.

However, geologic availability isn’t the only reason molars are important.  Hominid molars record a definite evolution amongst our ancestors that clearly delineates speciation and dietary specializations.

In the new study (Fuss et al., 2017), fossilized molars from two specimens of the hominid Graecopithecus freybergi (nicknameded “El Graeco”) were examined.  These examinations reveal that the roots of El Graeco’s molars are partially fused.  This characteristic makes them more similar to younger hominids than great apes or older hominid ancestors.

These El Graeco fossils that have human-like dental morphology were found in Greece and Bulgaria.  However, geography alone won’t explain the importance of this research.  To accomplish that, four-dimensional consideration is required—consideration of both geographic location (3D position) and chronology.  The all-important geochronologic dating of these fossils reveals them to be about 7.2 million years old.  This is at least 200,000 years older than the oldest African hominid fossils!

Conclusion:

Recent findings suggest that the oldest human ancestors split from chimpanzees in the Mediterranean region and that this happened about 200,000 years prior to any record of hominids in Africa.  Together, these discoveries suggest that our earliest hominid ancestors may have evolved in Europe.

From the original research article (Fuss et al., 2017):

“More fossils are needed but at this point it seems likely that the Eastern Mediterranean needs to be considered as just as likely a place of hominine diversification and hominin origins as tropical Africa.”

References:

Fuss J., Spassov N., Begun D.R., Böhme M. (2017). Potential hominin affinities of Graecopithecus from the Late Miocene of Europe. PLoS ONE, 12(5): e0177127. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177127

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.