Science

Extremely rare 13 million-year-old primate skull found

Extremely rare 13 million-year-old primate skull found

A remarkably complete fossil skull of an infant ape, nicknamed Alesi, who lived about 13 million years ago in Kenya may reveal how the common ancestor of all living apes and humans looked like, scientists say.

But anthropologists know the Napudet region of the Turkana Basinas a promising newdig site for fossils from the Middle Miocene era, about 13 million years ago.

Alesi partially excavated after careful removal of loose sand and rocks with dental picks and brushes.

But nearly nothing is known about the earlier evolution of the common ancestors of "hominoids", the group that includes gibbons, great apes and humans.

According to the article, "younger" fossil finds - those 6- to 7-million-years-old - have shed light on humans' common ancestors with chimpanzees. "It's a major finding that fills a large gap in the evolutionary record". Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared approximately 300,000 years ago in Africa.

A baby ape discovered in Kenya could be an example of the earliest ancestors of all living humans, scientists believe. The area was being explored by a team from the Turkana Basin Institute's De Anza College led by Isaiah Nengo.

"We've been looking for ape fossils for years-this is the first time we're getting a skull that's complete", he added. 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.

The skull was preserved due to a volcanic eruption in its vicinity, which covered it in minerals and ash.

Numerous most informative parts of the skull are preserved inside the fossil, and to make these visible the team used an extremely sensitive form of 3D X-ray imaging at the synchrotron facility in France. The scans revealed unerupted teeth, the brain cavity, and bony inner ear tubes. Growth lines on the adult teeth showed Alesi was one year and four months old at death.

Its unerupted teeth placed the skull in the genus Nyanzapithecus as the first member of a brand-new species: Nyanzapithecus alesi.

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The name Alesi derives from "ales", meaning "ancestor" in the local Turkana language. A local fossil hunter spotted the almost complete skull in rock layers located near Kenya's Lake Turkana.

Prior to the discovery, the species were only known from their teeth, and there were questions whether or not they were really apes.

Determining that the last common ancestors of living apes and humans originated in Africa is important because it helps scientists better understand how ancient climate, ecology, geography and other factors were key to their evolution.

From the outside, the skull has a small snout and is about the size of a lemon, making it look like that of a baby gibbon. "This gives the initial impression that it is an extinct gibbon", observes Chris Gilbert of Hunter College, New York. "However, our analyses show that this appearance is not exclusively found in gibbons, and it evolved multiple times among extinct apes, monkeys, and their relatives".

That the new species was certainly not gibbon-like in the way it behaved could be shown from the balance organ inside the inner ears. "One new fossil can totally change your perspective on things, and they frequently do".

Dr Fred Spoor, a member of the worldwide team from University College London, said: "Gibbons are well known for their fast and acrobatic behaviour in trees, but the inner ears of Alesi show that it would have had a much more cautious way of moving around".

Scientists estimate the Miocene period, which spanned from 5 million to 25 million years ago, produced more than 40 different species of hominoids - a term for a superfamily of primates that includes apes, humans and related ancestral species.

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.

"One of the fun things about this field is that it is so discovery driven", Feibel said.


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