13-million-year-old skull answers questions about the origins of the human species

This 13-million-year-old skull is the most intact primate fossil ever discovered and offers unprecedented details on how exactly apes became human.


An international group of experts has just found what is considered the most intact fossilized 13 million-year-old primate skull discovered to date in Kenya. The new find could help experts shed light on the common evolutionary heritage between apes and humans.

In other words, this 13-million-year-old skull could help experts understand how apes became human.

The remains—the size of a lemon—correspond to a baby, barely a year and four months old, and belong to a newly baptized species that lived 13 million years ago, during the Miocene epoch—the time when apes were beginning to expand their range into Eurasia.

It is believed that during the Miocene period—a period which spanned from 5 million to 25 million years ago—more than 40 different species of hominids existed.

Researchers have dubbed the new species Nyanzapithecus alesi where “alesi” is the Turkana word for Ancestor.

The mystery creature is not related to humans and apes and may have looked similar to what our long lost ancestors looked like.

Experts indicate how the new skull has a very small snout—similar to that of a gibbon—but scans revealed that the being had ear tubes which are closer to chimpanzees and humans.

In order to understand more about the skull, it was submitted to an extremely sensitive form of 3D X-Rays which helped scientists understand more about its age, species, and general characteristics.

“Gibbons are well known for their fast and acrobatic behavior in trees,” said Fred Spoor, Professor of Evolutionary Anatomy at University College London.

“But the inner ears of Alesi show that it would have had a much more careful way of moving around.”

The newly found skull is considered as the most complete extinct ape skull in the fossil record.

Experts believe how humans diverged from apes around six million later, meaning that humans shared a last common ancestor with chimpanzees some 7 million years ago.

Lead author Dr. Isaiah Nengo, of Stony Brook University, said: “Nyanzapithecus Alesi was part of a group of primates that lived in Africa for approximately 10 million years. What the discovery of Alesi proves is that this group was close to the origin of living apes and humans and that this origin was African.”

Co-author Craig Feibel, Professor of Geology and Anthropology at of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, added: “The Napudet locality offers us a rare impression of an African landscape 13 million years ago. A nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil and countless trees. It also presented us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil.”

The study was published in the journal Nature.

The new study was sponsored by several institutions such as: The Leakey Foundation and trustee Gordon Getty, the Foothill-De Anza Foundation, the Fulbright Scholars Program, the National Geographic Society, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Max Planck Society.

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