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Did humans first evolve in Europe? Ape skull sparks new debate

The origin of humanity has been a topic of debate for many years, and a recent discovery in Turkey has added a new piece to the puzzle. Historically, the most widely accepted belief has been that the birthplace of apes and humans was Africa. However, an ancient ape skull found in Turkey is now challenging this narrative.

The age of the ape skull, named Anadoluvius turkae, could change our understanding of the evolutionary journey of humans.

Time gap

The skull is estimated to be around 8.7 million years old. The significance of this timeframe lies in the fact that, up until now, there has not been any trace of early hominins, including humans and African apes, in Africa until seven million years ago. 

This time gap has opened a new discussion among scientists: did our ancestors, the precursors of African apes and humans, first evolve in Europe before making their way to Africa?

Skull discovery 

The skull was discovered in 2015, but the debate around its significance gained momentum after it was described in a recent publication in the journal Communications Biology

Professor David Begun is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto and the co-senior author of the study.

The skull was recovered from the Çorakyerler fossil locality near Cankiri, a city in Turkey about 87 miles north of Ankara.

“The completeness of the fossil allowed us to do a broader and more detailed analysis using many characters and attributes that are coded into a program designed to calculate evolutionary relationships,” said Professor Begun. 

“The face is mostly complete, after applying mirror imaging. The new part is the forehead, with bone preserved to about the crown of the cranium. Previously described fossils do not have this much of the brain case.”

Anadoluvius lifestyle

The researchers say Anadoluvius was about the size of a large male chimpanzee (50-60 kg) – very large for a chimp and close to the average size of a female gorilla (75-80 kg). The ape lived in a dry forest setting, and probably spent a great deal of time on the ground. 

“We have no limb bones but judging from its jaws and teeth, the animals found alongside it, and the geological indicators of the environment, Anadoluvius probably lived in relatively open conditions, unlike the forest settings of living great apes,” said study lead author Ayla Sevim-Erol. 

“More like what we think the environments of early humans in Africa were like. The powerful jaws and large, thickly enameled teeth suggest a diet including hard or tough food items from terrestrial sources such as roots and rhizomes.”

Early hominines

Anadoluvius and other fossil apes from nearby Greece (Ouranopithecus) and Bulgaria (Graecopithecus) form a group that come closest in many details of anatomy and ecology to the earliest known hominins, or humans. 

The new fossils are the best-preserved specimens of this group of early hominines and provide the strongest evidence to date that the group originated in Europe and later dispersed into Africa. 

The study’s detailed analysis also reveals that the Balkan and Anatolian apes evolved from ancestors in western and central Europe.

Hominin evolution

“Our findings further suggest that hominins not only evolved in western and central Europe but spent over five million years evolving there and spreading to the eastern Mediterranean before eventually dispersing into Africa, probably as a consequence of changing environments and diminishing forests,” said Professor Begun.

However, while these findings are monumental, Professor Begun is cautious about their implications. 

“This new evidence supports the hypothesis that hominins originated in Europe and dispersed into Africa along with many other mammals between nine and seven million years ago, though it does not definitively prove it,” said Professor Begun. 

For a more comprehensive and  understanding, Begun emphasizes the importance of additional fossils dating back seven to eight million years from both continents, Europe and Africa.

Opposing views

Not everyone in the scientific community agrees with this new theory. Professor Chris Stringer, a leader in human evolution research at the Natural History Museum in London, believes that the narrative remains largely unchanged. 

“This has been a long-running debate regarding great ape and our origins,” said Professor Stringer. He references a recent paper in the journal Science which concluded, “Current evidence suggests that hominins originated in Africa from Miocene ape ancestors, unlike any living species.”

With two opposing perspectives, what remains clear is that the story of our evolutionary past is still unfolding. This discovery might be a piece of the puzzle, but whether it’s a cornerstone or just another fragment remains to be seen.

Image Credit: Sevim-Erol, A., Begun, D.R., Sözer, Ç.S. et al.

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