With Great Ape Discovery, a Possible Evolutionary Bombshell

Study suggests Europe was a hotbed for great ape evolution, and possible cradle of humanity
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 10, 2024 12:16 PM CDT
Great Ape Discovery Could Point to an Evolution Bombshell
Various views of the fossilized teeth said to belong to an extinct great ape dubbed Buronius manfredschmidi.   (B?hme et al., 2024, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0)

For the first time, researchers have found evidence that two distinct species of great apes coexisted outside of Africa many millions of years ago. It's an important, though contested, discovery that suggests European ecosystems in the Miocene Epoch, from about 23 million to 5 million years ago, "enabled, perhaps even forced, the evolution of diverse ape lineages," German paleontologist Madelaine Böhme tells Science News. Böhme was part of a team that previously uncovered fossils of Danuvius guggenmosi, an extinct great ape considered the oldest known upright walker, at Germany's Hammerschmiede site. In a new study, Böhme and colleagues identify a second species of great ape from the same stratigraphic layer as Danuvius, dated to 11.6 million years ago.

This one, dubbed Buronius manfredschmidi, was the smallest known great ape, researchers surmise based on three fossils: a partial upper molar and a kneecap from an immature individual and a partial lower premolar from an adult. The fossils indicate Buronius was a skilled climber of about 20 pounds who ate soft foods like leaves, according to the study published Friday in PLOS One. Danuvius, in contrast, was about twice the size and ate tougher foods like nuts, roots, mollusks, and the flesh of small animals, per Science News. This means the two species wouldn't have competed for resources, allowing them to coexist much like the modern gibbons and orangutans of Southeast Asia, according to a release.

Some researchers say the fossil evidence is too scarce to definitely prove a new species. Some speculate that the Buronius fossils came from Danuvius juveniles or infants. But if there were, in fact, two great ape species coexisting in Europe in the Miocene, it could lend support to Böhme's controversial theory that the continent was the true cradle of humanity, where the ancestors of African apes and humans first evolved. Miocene great apes are on the same family tree as modern chimps and humans. Böhme notes that with the addition of Buronius, there are now 16 European fossil ape genera related to modern great apes from roughly 16 million to 6 million years ago—the period in which chimps and humans diverged—or twice as many as from Africa, per Science News. (More discoveries stories.)

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