The skull of an infant ape buried by a volcano 13 million years ago has preserved intriguing clues about the ancestor humans shared with apes — including a likely African origin, scientists say.
A previously-unknown creature that shared an extended family with the human forefather, had a flat face like that of our far-flung cousin the gibbon, but did not move like one, its discoverers wrote in the journal Nature.
They named it Nyanzapithecus alesi after “ales” — the word for “ancestor” in the Turkana language of Kenya, where the lemon-sized skull was unearthed.
The sole specimen is that of an infant that would have grown to weigh about 11 kilograms in adulthood. It had a brain much larger than monkeys from the same epoch, the researchers said.
“If you compare to all living things, it looks most like a gibbon,” study co-author Isaiah Nengo of the Stony Brook University in New York told AFP.
This does not mean the direct ancestor of living apes necessarily looked like a gibbon, just that a member of its family did at the time.
Assuming a gibbon-like appearance for our ancestor would be similar to scientists from the future unearthing a gorilla skull and concluding that all hominins — the group that also includes chimps and humans — looked like a gorilla.
The location of the extraordinary fossil find, said the team, supported the idea that the ape-human ancestor lived in Africa and not in Asia as some have speculated.
“With this we … put the root of the hominoidea in Africa more firmly,” said Nengo.