Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Breaking news Ancient Ape Discovered—Last Ape-Human Ancestor?

In Spain scientists have discovered 13-million-year-old fossils of new species of ape. The species may have been the last common ancestor of humans and all great apes living today. (See pictures of the new ape species.)

The great apes—which later gave rise to humans and which now include orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas—are thought to have diverged from the lesser apes about 11 to 16 million years ago. Today's lesser apes include the gibbons.

The new species was christened Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, after the village, Els Hostalets de Pierola, and region, Catalonia, where it was found. Like great apes and humans, Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, had a stiff lower spine and other special adaptations for climbing trees.

You'd think they could come up with maybe a slightly friendlier-looking critter.

Original summary of the Science paper here. The actual paper is here. Both by subscription only.


We describe a partial skeleton with facial cranium of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus gen. et sp. nov., a new Middle Miocene (12.5 to 13 million years ago) ape from Barranc de Can Vila 1 (Barcelona, Spain). It is the first known individual of this age that combines well-preserved cranial, dental, and postcranial material. The thorax, lumbar region, and wrist provide evidence of modern ape–like orthograde body design, and the facial morphology includes the basic derived great ape features. The new skeleton reveals that early great apes retained primitive monkeylike characters associated with a derived body structure that permits upright postures of the trunk. Pierolapithecus, hence, does not fit the theoretical model that predicts that all characters shared by extant great apes were present in their last common ancestor, but instead points to a large amount of homoplasy in ape evolution. The overall pattern suggests that Pierolapithecus is probably close to the last common ancestor of great apes and humans.