The discovery of 11.6-million-year-old fossils in Europe suggests that the first apes to walk upright may have evolved there, not Africa. “These findings may revolutionise our view on human evolution,” says Madelaine Böhme at the University of Tübingen, Germany.
Böhme and her colleagues discovered the fossils in a clay pit in Bavaria in southern Germany. They found 37 bones belonging to four individuals: an adult male, two adult females and a juvenile. They named the new species Danuvius guggenmosi. It was a small ape, weighing between 17 and 31 kilograms, and probably ate hard foods like nuts.
Surprisingly, its legs resemble those of humans. We can fully extend our knees, so our legs act like pillars directly under our bodies. Chimps can’t do this: when they stand on two legs, their knees stay bent. D. guggenmosi’s leg bones suggest it could stand like a human, prompting Böhme’s team to argue that the ape stood and walked upright in trees, unlike all known apes.
This is startling because D. guggenmosi is much older than the oldest known hominins that may have been bipedal: Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis. Both lived around 6 million years ago, meaning the newly discovered species may push back the origin of bipedality about 5 million years.
Furthermore, the known bipedal hominins are all African, leading scientists to believe that bipedality evolved there. Böhme’s team argues that this trait arose among European apes.
Her colleague David Begun at the University of Toronto, Canada, has long argued that hominins first evolved in Europe before moving into Africa. He has presented evidence that another European ape, Rudapithecus, could walk on two legs; that some European apes had small teeth like hominins; and that a little-studied ape called Graecopithecus, from the eastern Mediterranean, may have been a hominin.
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There is also a mysterious set of footprints in Greece, which appear to have been made by a bipedal hominin, and which are 5.7 million years old.
But the idea that hominins, or bipedality, evolved in Europe isn’t widely accepted, largely because the evidence is fragmentary. Böhme says the discovery of D. guggenmosi is “a game changer”, but many remain sceptical.
“The fossils presented here do not preserve convincing evidence for bipedal locomotion,” says Kelsey Pugh at City University of New York. She says the hips and feet are both crucial for this, but aren’t among the fossils.
The fossil is “another great discovery”, but the study’s inferences about how D. guggenmosi walked aren’t reliable, says Sergio Almécija of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Others are more positive. “This is really cool,” says John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He notes that D. guggenmosi’s shin bone looks a lot like that of a hominin. But he is unconvinced that bipedality, or hominins, began in Europe. He says that, around 11 million years ago, apes were expanding and diversifying, so finding a fossil in one place isn’t proof that it originated there.
Even if bipedality or hominins evolved in Europe, there is no doubt both our genus and our species originated in Africa.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1731-0
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