Ancient skull belonged to a cousin of the ape common ancestor

Geronimo Vena
Agosto 9, 2017

Researchers discovered a 13-million-year-old skull believed to be of an infant ape from what's now Kenya.

Scholars think during the Miocene period some 5 million to 23 million years ago, primates split into at least 40 different species.

The researchers used sensitive 3D X-ray imaging to look inside the skull, and check out the brain cavity, inner ears and the ape's yet to emerge adult teeth.

Alesi's skull is about the size of a lemon, and with its notably small snout it looks most like a baby gibbon. "There are numerous fossil apes, monkeys, and even more primitive fossil primates that look a bit like gibbons", explains Christopher Gilbert of the City University of NY, a member of the team that analysed the fossil. It belongs to a completely new species of hominoid similar to present-day gibbons. The name "alesi" comes from the Turkana word "ales" meaning ancestor.

"Nyanzapithecus represents a group of fossil primates that were relatively poorly known in terms of their overall anatomy", says Gilbert. "There were open questions as to whether or not they were even apes". "Importantly, the cranium has fully developed bony ear tubes, an important feature linking it with living apes", adds Ellen Miller of Wake Forest University. N. alesi and its close relatives probably evolved some time just before the common ancestor of all living apes. We are most closely related to the great apes - chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas. "I still am over the moon", said paleontologist Isaiah Nengo of New York-based Stony Brook University's Turkana Basin Institute and California's De Anza College. It has therefore been hard to find answers to two fundamental questions: Did the common ancestor of living apes and humans originate in Africa, and what did these early ancestors look like?

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.

And until now, some of the best fossil evidence we had of some 10 million years of primate evolution were jaw fragments.

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