Is This What the Common Ancestor of Humans and Apes Looked Like?

The skull was found near Lake Turkana in Kenya

Furthermore, based on a 15-million-year-old arm fossil from a related species, researchers think Alesi probably didn't have long limbs that would have allowed it to swing through trees like gibbons. It was during this critical time that primitive apes began to diversify, adapting to new environments and spreading from Africa into Eurasia.

Here's ESRF's video about the discovery of Nyanzapithecus alesi.

"We have a handsome ape cranium (skull) from a period that we knew virtually nothing about, and this is one of those wonderful cases where discovery leads to all sorts of new and interesting perspectives", says Craig Feibel, a professor of geology and anthropology at Rutgers University.

Read the full story from the Leakey Foundation. The research, partially funded by National Geographic, was published August 10, 2017 in Nature.

© Isaiah Nengo, Photo by Christopher Kiarie.

"This skull comes from an ancient group of apes that existed in Africa for over 10 million years and was close to the evolutionary origin of living apes and humans", says Nengo, of Stony Brook University in NY and De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif.

Paleontologists have made great strides in detailing the evolution of humans since they first diverged from apes some 7 million years ago. Relevant fossils are scarce, consisting mostly of isolated teeth and partial jaw bones.

"[We] know that [Alesi's] skull combines some modern great ape and gibbon traits with other more primitive traits", said Brenda Benefit, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University, who wasn't involved in the study.

Kenyan fossil hunter John Ekusi discovered the skull in 2014 in the Napudet area, west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

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"The Napudet locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago", Craig S. Feibel, a paleontologist at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, said in a news release. "It also provided us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil".

What the team later excavated would end up being what is thought to be the most complete skull of an extinct ape species in the fossil record.

To pinpoint where the species should be located in evolutionary history, the team brought the skull to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

The characteristics of the inner ear indicate how it moved in the trees and its teeth tell about its diet, she said. "The quality of our images was so good that we could establish from the teeth that the infant was about 1 year and 4 months old when it died".

Researchers determined that the skull belonged to a newly-identified species of early ape, which they classified as Nyanzapithecus alesi; the name of the species, alesi, derives from the Turkana word for ancestor. He suggested its nickname, "Alesi", because "ales" means "ancestor" in the local Turkana language. Up until then, scientists hadn't been certain if the Nyanzapithecus species were apes at all, or whether they had originated in Asia or Africa. "Importantly, the cranium has fully developed bony ear tubes, an important feature linking it with living apes", adds Ellen Miller of Wake Forest University.

From the outside, the skull has a small snout and is about the size of a lemon, making it look like that of a baby gibbon. "This gives the initial impression that it is an extinct gibbon", observes Chris Gilbert of Hunter College, New York.

Analysis of this tiny skull shows that this ancient species was more monkey-like than it was ape-like.

Dr Fred Spoor, a member of the worldwide team from University College London, said: "Gibbons are well known for their fast and acrobatic behaviour in trees, but the inner ears of Alesi show that it would have had a much more cautious way of moving around".

"Nyanzapithecus alesi was part of a group of primates that existed in Africa for over 10 million years", concludes lead author Isaiah Nengo. This evidence strongly suggests that Alesi was a true ape that lived after the split from monkeys.

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