The birthplace of modern man may have been the eastern Mediterranean, rather than Africa, according to scientists studying newly discovered ancient fossils of a tooth and lower jawbone. It's based on fossils from Greece and Bulgaria of an ape-like creature, known as Graecopithecus freybergi, that lived 7.2 million years ago and may be the so-called missing link.
The findings were published Tuesday. "Europe is as likely a place of [hominid] origins, and even of the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, as Africa", he says.
For decades, scientists have assumed that the lineages of humans and apes diverged between five to seven million years ago and that the first pre-humans developed in Africa. "Analyses by other research groups...suggest that Graecopithecus-known only from the single mandible with hardly any tooth crowns preserved-is closely related to the much better documented Ouranopithecus, also a late Miocene ape found in Greece", Potts writes.
The remains were related to a fossilised premolar found in Bulgaria, which prompted researchers to analyse the species to a deeper extent. Using a visualization method called computer tomography, researchers demonstrated that the roots of premolars were widely fused, a trait not seen in apes but common in the human lineage.
"While great apes typically have two or three separate and diverging roots, the roots of Graecopithecus converge and are partially fused - a feature that is characteristic of modern humans, early humans and several pre-humans including Ardipithecus and Australopithecus", said Madelaine Bohme from Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tubingen in Germany.
A new paper examines whether Europe and not Africa was the cradle of hominids some 7 million years ago.
"I really appreciate having a detailed analysis of the Graecopithecus jaw - the only fossil of its genus so far", said Richard Potts, a paleoanthropologist who directs the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program.
Begun assures that, if there are teeth and mandibles out there, there surely are other specimens waiting to be found.
The scans of the jaw showed some similarities with human ancestors.
But he is less convinced by the idea that the tooth roots alone can confirm that Graecopithecus is a hominin. "I think we should consider that they might instead be part of a diversity of apes that are continuous across parts of Africa and Europe, and our real ancestry may still be undiscovered".
"This condition is so far only known to occur regularly in hominins - pre-humans and humans", Spassov says. This was a surprising study since previously pre-humans were only found in sub-Saharan Africa.
McNulty added that the "weight of evidence" still favours a hominin origin in Africa. We only have a jaw bone and a tooth, and the researchers were only able to identify one physical feature, focussing on the roots of the teeth. Given this discrepancy, it's a feature "that may have evolved independently in several different lineages", he said. Only one canine root was studied.
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