University of Toronto anthropologist David Begun and his European colleagues are re-writing the book on the history of great apes and humans, arguing that most of their evolutionary development took place in Eurasia, not Africa.
In back-to-back issues of the Journal of Human Evolution, Begun and his collaborators describe two fossils, both discovered in Europe. One comes from the oldest relative of all living great apes (orangutans and African apes) and humans; the other is the most complete skull ever found of a close relative of the African apes and humans.
In the November 2001 issue, Begun and colleague Elmar Heizmann of the Natural History Museum of Stuttgart discuss the earliest-known great ape fossil, broadly ancestral to all living great apes and humans. "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun says. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
In the December 2001 paper, Begun and colleague László Kordos of the Geological Museum of Hungary describe the skull of Dryopithecus, discovered in Hungary by their team a couple of years ago. The fossil is identical to living great apes in brain size and very similar to African apes in the shape of the skull and face and in details of the teeth, the researchers say.
The discoveries suggest that the early ancestors of the hominids (the family of great apes and humans) migrated to Eurasia from Africa about 17 million years ago, just before these two continents were cut off from each other by an expansion of the Mediterranean Sea. Begun says that the great apes flourished in Eurasia and that their lineage leading to the African apes and humans - Dryopithecus - migrated south from Europe or Western Asia into Africa, where populations diverged into the lines leading towards great apes, gorillas and chimps (chimpanzees and bonobos). One of those lines eventually evolved into the ancestors of humans about six million years ago.
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