July 23, 2018

Ancient infant skull yields insights into human-ape lineage

11 August 2017, 10:08 | Regina Holmes

The skull was found near Lake Turkana in Kenya Credit Isaiah Nengo

The skull was found near Lake Turkana in Kenya

The article says that fossils finds from 6 or 7 million years ago shed light on the ancestors that humans have in common with chimpanzees, but this older fossil will tell researchers much more about the common ancestors of all humans and apes. The research, partially funded by National Geographic, was published August 10, 2017 in Nature.

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

"Nyanzapithecus alesi was part of a group of primates that existed in Africa for over 10 million years", says lead author Isaiah Nengo.

Feibel, who has been studying Kenyan geology for more than 30 years, said Napudet offers a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago.

A team from Rutgers University believe the fossil of the newly named Nyanzapithecus alesi can enhance the knowledge of ape and human evolution. "It also provided us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil".

Our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived in Africa six to seven million years ago, and many spectacular fossil finds have revealed how humans evolved since then.

"The living apes are found all across Africa and Asia-chimps and gorillas in Africa, orangutans and gibbons in Asia-and there are many fossil apes found on both continents, and Europe as well", Christopher Gilbert, paleoanthropologist at Hunter College in NY and co-author of the paper, tells Choi.

The researchers can not tell if Alesi was male or female, as the infant was too young for the features of the skull that distinguish the sexes to have emerged, the researchers said. The skull had been nicknamed "Alesi" after the local Turkana word for "ancestor".

However, thanks to Alesi, scientists now know that N. Alesi had been part of a group of primates that roamed Earth more than 10 million years ago.

Most fossils from more than 40 known extinct ape species amount to no more than jaw fragments or a few isolated teeth. 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 Grenoble, France.

"We were able to reveal the brain cavity, the inner ears and the unerupted adult teeth with their daily record of growth lines", Paul Tafforeau, an ESRF scientist, said in a statement. The three-dimensional X-ray images taken of these adult teeth were so detailed that researchers could count their enamel layers, which were laid down over time like rings inside a tree, helping the scientists estimate that the baby primate was 16 months old when it died. What's more, the researchers suggest that the genus to which this ape species belongs to, Nyanzapithecus, is the closest thing we know to the last common ancestor of all living apes.

"Until now, all Nyanzapithecus species were only known from teeth and it was an open question whether or not they were even apes", says John Fleagle of Stony Brook University.

Further analysis of the ape skull suggests the new species looked similar to a gibbon with a small head and snout, but likely moved more cautiously through the trees. "This gives the initial impression that it is an extinct gibbon", observes Chris Gilbert of Hunter College, New York. Members of a team led by paleoanthropologist Isaiah Nengo estimated the fossil's age by assessing radioactive forms of the element argon in surrounding rock, which decay at a known rate. Faces resembling gibbons evolved independently in several extinct monkeys, apes and their relatives, the researchers say.

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. Alesi really sits at the origin of modern apes, so we've had a very good record of fossil humans for a long time.

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