Discovery Of Ancient Skull Sheds Light On Ape Ancestry

Meet 'Alesi', the 13-million-year-old baby ape putting a face to our earliest ancestors

The researchers used X-ray imaging to reconstruct the teeth, which indicated that the ape belonged to a new species.

The new fossil, nicknamed Alesi, was discovered in the Napudet area near Lake Turkana, where numerous remains of ancient human ancestors have been found.

"The living apes are found all across Africa and Asia - chimps and gorillas in Africa, orangutans and gibbons in Asia - and there are many fossil apes found on both continents, and Europe as well", study co-author Christopher Gilbert, a paleoanthropologist at Hunter College in NY, told Live Science.

"Until now, relevant fossils are scarce and incomplete which is why this new discovery is extremely important for furthering our knowledge", he said.

The discovery in Kenya of a remarkably complete fossil ape skull reveals what the common ancestor of all living apes and humans may have looked like.

The research appears in the journal Nature. Our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived in Africa 6 to 7 million years ago, and many spectacular fossil finds have revealed how humans evolved since then. Gibbon ancestors are thought to have diverged from precursors of living great apes and humans between 20 million and 15 million years ago, Alba says. The fossil record for the Miocene epoch in which it's expected to have lived is mostly comprised of teeth and jawbone fragments. It has therefore been hard to find answers to two fundamental questions: Did the common ancestor of living apes and humans originate in Africa, and what did these early ancestors look like? Again though, the fully developed bony inner ear tubes in KNM-NP 59050 - a trait also seen in today's apes - provided the critical link.

That has now changed with the remarkable discovery of a 13-million-year-old infant ape skull in the Napudet deposits of northern Kenya.

"A nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil and countless trees", Feibel says. The fossil provides the most detailed look to date at a member of a line of African primates that are now candidates for central players in the evolution of present-day apes and humans.

"The quality of our images was so good that we could establish from the teeth that the infant was about one year and four months old when it died", said Tafforeau.

Comparisons with other African ape fossils indicate that the infant's skull belongs to a new species that the researchers named Nyanzapithecus alesi.

The name Alesi derives from "ales", meaning "ancestor" in the local Turkana language.

"Until now, all Nyanzapithecus species were only known from teeth and it was an open question whether or not they were even apes", says John Fleagle of Stony Brook University.

At first, researchers suspected Alesi had been a baby gibbon because of the small snout.

"This gives the initial impression that it is an extinct gibbon", says Chris Gilbert of Hunter College.

Analysis of this tiny skull shows that this ancient species was more monkey-like than it was ape-like. In gibbons, a part of the inner ear called the semicircular canals, which coordinates balance, is large relative to body size.

"Gibbons are well known for their fast and acrobatic behavior in trees", said Fred Spoor, Professor of Evolutionary Anatomy at University College London.

Scientists estimate the Miocene period, which spanned from 5 million to 25 million years ago, produced more than 40 different species of hominoids - a term for a superfamily of primates that includes apes, humans and related ancestral species.

Despite the age and unprecedented completeness of the new ape skull, no reported tooth or skull features clearly place N. alesi close to the origins of living apes and humans, says paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto.

The study was sponsored by The Leakey Foundation and trustee Gordon Getty, the Foothill-De Anza Foundation, the Fulbright Scholars Program, the National Geographic Society, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Max Planck Society.

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