Discovery of 8.7m-year-old ape rewrites story of humanity

The partial skull of female Anadoluvius turkae. Image credit: Sevim-Erol et al., doi: 10.1038/s42003-023-05210-5.
The partial skull of female Anadoluvius turkae. - Sevim-Erol, A., Begun, D.R., Sozer, Ç.S. et al

Africa has always been considered the cradle of mankind, with humans evolving from apes on the continent, before spreading to the rest of the world. But an intriguing find is challenging the long-standing assumption.

The partial skull of a new ancient ape has been discovered in Turkey, and it appears to predate African apes, suggesting that human origins may actually lie in Europe.

The fossil of Anadoluvius turkae was discovered in Cankiri, a city around 86 miles northeast of Ankara, and is thought to date from around 8.7 million years ago.

A new face and partial brain case of Anadoluvius turkae, a fossil hominine – the group that includes African apes and humans – from the Çorakyerler fossil site located in Central Anatolia, Turkey
A new face and partial brain case of Anadoluvius turkae, a fossil hominine found at a fossil site in Central Anatolia, Turkey - Sevim-Erol, A., Begun, D.R., Sozer, Ç.S. et al/Sevim-Erol, A., Begun, D.R., Sozer, Ç.S. et al

In contrast, early hominins – the group that includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, humans, and their fossil ancestors  are not seen in Africa until around seven million years ago.

It suggests that the ancestors of African apes and humans evolved in Europe before migrating south between nine and seven million years ago.

“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 Prof David Begun, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

“These findings contrast with the long-held view that African apes and humans evolved exclusively in Africa.

“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.

“For that, we need to find more fossils from Europe and Africa between eight and seven million years old to establish a definitive connection between the two groups.”

Out of Africa

The well-preserved skull was uncovered in 2015, but experts are only now realising its true significance.

Researchers believe Anadoluvius was close to the size of a female gorilla – around 12 stone (76lbs) – lived in a dry forest setting, and probably spent a great deal of time on the ground.

Alongside the skull in the same fossil layer, experts found evidence of giraffes, warthogs, rhinos, diverse antelopes, zebras, elephants, porcupines, hyenas, and lion-like carnivores.

All animals commonly associated with African grasslands and dry forests of today.

Experts believe this ecological community dispersed into Africa from the eastern Mediterranean sometime after about eight million years ago.

“The founding of the modern African open country fauna from the eastern Mediterranean has long been known and now we can add to the list of entrants the ancestors of the African apes and humans,” said Professor Ayla Sevim Erol, of the Department of Anthropology, at Ankara University, Turkey.

“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.

“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.”

Missing branch

The researchers say that the findings establish Anadoluvius turkae as a branch of the part of the evolutionary tree that gave rise to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and humans.

The line that would lead to humans diverged from apes at some point between around 9.3 million and around 6.5 million years ago.

However, not all experts are convinced and say the findings do not change the theory that the first humans evolved in Africa before spreading further afield.

Prof Chris Stringer, research leader in human evolution at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “This has been a long-running debate regarding great ape and our origins.

“I don’t think this find changes much from the discussions (in 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.’”

The research was published in the journal Communications Biology.