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12 million-year-old human ancestor, Pierolapithecus, brought to life

The face of the ancient ape, Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, has been brought back to life, providing significant insights into the story of great ape and human evolution. 

The research project was conducted by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn College, and the Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont. 

The team has reconstructed the damaged but well-preserved skull of the remarkable species, which existed approximately 12 million years ago.

Pierolapithecus catalaunicus

Discovered in northeastern Spain and first described in 2004, Pierolapithecus catalaunicus belonged to a diverse group of now-extinct apes that inhabited Europe between 15 to 7 million years ago. 

This timeframe witnessed a significant chapter in the evolutionary history of primates, leading to the emergence of various unique species. 

Great ape and human evolution 

However, what sets Pierolapithecus catalaunicus apart from its contemporaries is the fact that researchers have access to its cranium as well as a partial skeleton of the same individual. Such comprehensive fossil evidence is a rare occurrence in paleontological studies.

The significance of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus extends beyond its mere existence; it plays a pivotal role in understanding the “mosaic nature of hominid (great ape and human) evolution.” 

Given that hominids are a taxonomic family that includes both great apes and humans, a detailed analysis of the Pierolapithecus catalaunicus can offer unparalleled insights into the evolutionary trajectory that led to the development of modern apes and humans.

Evolutionary connections

This recent reconstruction of the ape’s facial features not only sheds light on its physical appearance but also helps to establish crucial evolutionary connections. 

By piecing together this evolutionary puzzle, scientists are moving closer to a holistic understanding of our own origins and the intricate network of species that paved the way for the emergence of humans.

Study lead author Kelsey Pugh is a research associate in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology and a lecturer at Brooklyn College.

Pierolapithecus biology

“Features of the skull and teeth are extremely important in resolving the evolutionary relationships of fossil species, and when we find this material in association with bones of the rest of the skeleton, it gives us the opportunity to not only accurately place the species on the hominid family tree, but also to learn more about the biology of the animal in terms of, for example, how it was moving around its environment,” said Pugh.

Previous work suggests that Pierolapithecus had an upright body plan which preceded adaptations that allowed hominids to move through tree branches. However, the animal’s position in evolutionary history is still up for debate. 

Fragmented fossil record

“One of the persistent issues in studies of ape and human evolution is that the fossil record is fragmentary, and many specimens are incompletely preserved and distorted,” said study co-author Ashley Hammond. 

“This makes it difficult to reach a consensus on the evolutionary relationships of key fossil apes that are essential to understanding ape and human evolution.”

The researchers performed CT scans to reconstruct the cranium of Pierolapithecus. The goal was to compare it to other primate species, and model the evolution of key features of ape facial structure. 

What the researchers learned 

The study revealed that Pierolapithecus shares similarities facial features with both fossilized and living great apes. However, it also contains distinct facial features not found in other Middle Miocene apes. 

The results suggest that Pierolapithecus represents one of the earliest members of the great apes and human family.

“An interesting output of the evolutionary modeling in the study is that that the cranium of Pierolapithecus is closer in shape and size to the ancestor from which living great apes and humans evolved,” study co-author Sergio Almécija.

“On the other hand, gibbons and siamangs (the ‘lesser apes’) seem to be secondarily derived in relation to size reduction.”

More about Pierolapithecus

As mentioned above, paleontologists unearthed the Pierolapithecus in a remarkable state of preservation. This allowed for an extensive study of its physical characteristics. The findings, published in the journal “Science” in 2004, shook the scientific community.

This primate was believed to weigh between 30 and 50 pounds. It displayed several features similar to modern great apes, indicating a possible common ancestor. It boasted a wide, flat ribcage, a stiff lower spine, and unique wrist characteristics conducive to climbing. These traits suggest a transition from earlier arboreal primates to a form adept at both climbing and living on the ground.

Anatomical structure of Pierolapithecus

The skeletal structure of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus reveals much about its lifestyle and movements. Its shortened and wide trunk, coupled with the mobile shoulder joints, indicates a species adept at climbing and swinging through trees, known as brachiation. However, unlike entirely tree-dwelling primates, it possessed robust finger bones. This characteristic hints at substantial ground interaction.

The facial structure of Pierolapithecus is equally telling. It exhibits forward-facing eyes, a short snout, and small canines, distancing it from purely fruit-eating primates and suggesting a varied diet. These characteristics paint a picture of a versatile and adaptive creature, straddling the line between the arboreal and terrestrial realms.

Implications for human evolutionary theory

Pierolapithecus catalaunicus challenges previous evolutionary theories. Its existence suggests that key hominid characteristics may have developed earlier than once thought. While it is not a direct ancestor of humans, it provides a clearer picture of the ancestral lineage of great apes and humans, highlighting the traits that evolved as primates adapted to their changing environments.

The discovery of Pierolapithecus emphasizes that hominid evolution is non-linear and filled with diverse branches and extinct relatives. Each new fossil find, like Pierolapithecus, adds another piece to the puzzle, aiding our understanding of where we come from and possibly providing insights into where the human species may be headed.

Protecting our ancestral heritage

The site where Pierolapithecus was found is under threat from illegal excavations and vandalism. Preservationists and scientists alike are calling for enhanced protective measures to safeguard this invaluable window into our past. As we continue to study Pierolapithecus, it is crucial to protect these archaeological sites to maintain the integrity of our shared evolutionary history.

In summary, Pierolapithecus catalaunicus serves as a landmark discovery in paleoanthropology. It bridges the gap in our understanding of primate evolution and underscores the complexity of the human evolutionary tree. As we uncover more evidence and broaden our knowledge, we come to appreciate the intricate journey that has shaped life on Earth.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image Credit: © David Alba (left), Salvador Moyà-Solà (middle), Kelsey Pugh (right)

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