Ancient skull may reveal link between humans and apes
However, despite that research, little is known about the evolution of the ape and human ancestors that existed before 10 millions years ago.

By Tobi Gerdes | Jan 10, 2018

A team of international archaeologists working in Kenya have found a complete ape skull that could help show what the common ancestor of humans and living apes looked like, a new study published in the journal Nature reports.

Out of all primates, humans are most closely related to apes, a group that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons. Past research has revealed that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived in Africa between 6 to 7 million years ago, and other studies have shown the way humans evolved since that time.

However, despite that research, little is known about the evolution of the ape and human ancestors that existed before 10 millions years ago. The fossil evidence is scarce, and the remains that have been found are simply single teeth or partial jaw bones. As a result, nobody knows if our common ancestor came from Africa, nor do they know what such an ancestor may have looked like.

The new remains may change that.

The recently discovered fossil comes from a 13 million year old ape infant that Kenyan fossil hunter John Ekusi noticed in the Napudet area, west of Lake Turkana during 2014. Researchers analyzed it soon after.

"The Napudet locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago," said study co-author Craig S. Feibel, a researcher at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, according to "A nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil and countless trees. It also provided us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil."

The fossil -- which is roughly the size of a lemon -- is the most complete extinct ape skull ever found. Not only is it intact, but 3D X-ray imaging also revealed the brain cavity, the inner ears, and unerupted adult teeth with a daily record of their growth lines

The scans showed the infant was roughly 1 year and 4 months old when it died, and the teeth suggest it belonged to an entirely new species known as Nyanzapithecus alesi. That is important because, until the finding, information on Nyanzapithecus species was extremely rare. In fact, fossils were so scarce that many researchers were not even sure if they were apes. Now, scientists have confirmation they were. This helps build out the fossil record and brings researchers one step closer to understanding the common link between humans and apes.

"This discovery will help to fill in missing information regarding adaptations that influence ape and human evolutionary histories," said Brenda Benefit, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University, according to Fox News.

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