National Geographic News
An illustration of an ancient fish with an unusual jaw.

Is this the first face? The extinct fish swims in ancient seas in an illustration.

Illustration courtesy Brian Choo

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published September 25, 2013

Scientists have found the oldest face—and it's a fish. (Not a fishface, though.)

The 419-million-year-old fish fossil could help explain when and how vertebrates, including humans, acquired our faces—suggesting a far more primitive origin for this critical feature of our success, a new study says.

"Entelognathus primordialis is one of the earliest, and certainly the most primitive, fossil fish that has the same jawbones as modern bony fishes and land vertebrates including ourselves," said study co-author Min Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

"The human jaw is quite directly connected to the jaw of this fish, and that's what makes it so interesting."

The bones comprising the fish's cheek and jaws appear essentially the same as those found in modern bony vertebrates, including humans, Zhu added. Because it boasts maxilla and mandible much like our own, the fish may be the earliest known creature with what we'd recognize as a face. (Related: "Ancient Toothy Fish Found in Arctic—Giant Prowled Rivers.")

Key Evolutionary Step

The development of jaws and faces was a key step in vertebrate evolution, and probably appeared as a way for fish to catch bigger and/or more nimble prey, according to the study, published September 26 in the journal Nature.

There remains much to learn about how it happened, however.

University of Oxford paleobiologist Matt Friedman, who wasn't involved in the research but penned a commentary for Nature, said the fossil boasts a jaw and face structure that's nothing like those in any other known members of Entelognathus's extinct family of primitive armored fishes, the placoderms. These creatures had simple jaws and cheeks composed of just a few large bones, Friedman explained, rather than complex arrangements of smaller bones like those found in modern bony fishes.

But in the new fossil, found in China, has a distinctive three-bone system still used by chewing vertebrates today: a lower jawbone called the dentary and two upper jaw bones called the premaxilla (holding the front teeth) and the maxilla (holding the canine and cheek teeth).

"The exciting thing about this fossil is that when you look at the top of it, it looks like a placoderm, but when you look at the side of the fish and the structure of the jaw, it doesn't look like any placoderm that we know of," Friedman said.

"This tends to suggest the exciting possibility that these jawbones evolved way deep down in the lineage, so these features we used to hold as being unique to bony fishes may not be so unique.” (Related: "Ancient Fish Downsized But Still Largest Ever.")

Understanding Our Origins

The ramifications of that theory, if confirmed, would extend far beyond fish into the deepest roots of our own family tree, Friedman said.

"Basically, as terrestrial vertebrates, we are a kind of very specialized, very bizarre fish that about 370 million years ago went on land and lost its fins. Understanding the origin of bony fishes is inextricably linked to understanding our own origins because we're bony fishes.

"These different bones in our skull, the ones that medical students learn the names of, where and when in our family tree did they arrive?” he asked. (Related: "Flat-Faced Early Humans Confirmed—Lived Among Other Human Species.")

If it's the case that the bones we see in Entelognathus are genuinely related to the ones in our own faces, Friedman explained, we can trace the origin of those features very deep down into our own family tree, even before the lineage of bony fishes (including terrestrial vertebrates like humans) split from that of the cartilaginous fishes (including sharks and rays).

"It suggests a real antiquity to some of the most prominent features of our own bony faces."

41 comments
C. York
C. York

I get so tired of all the stupid arguments about creation on the blogs. If you are religious and do not believe in evolution why were you drawn to read this article? I am a student and when I turn to the comments at the end of the article I am looking for discussion on the article not your religious beliefs. I believe in a higher power, but I do not believe in everything a book (Bible), compiled and put together by some priests and Constantine, tells me to do, and I certainly do not want it shoved down my throat after every article I read on NAT GEO. Either give us your opinion without all the "god" stuff or start your own blog to complain about who don't believe ancient religions anymore. I am sorry but the majority of us are not brimming with faith. And I agree I would have loved to have seen the real bones of this fish.

Alison Steward
Alison Steward

Reading some of the comments supporting evolution would just like to bring up the cambrian explosion which was discovered in 1840 and charles darwin recognised this as a valid objection to his natural selection theories. Could it possibly be that science can also support the theory of creation and the fact still remains that this is very much a mystery today as it was when discovered in 1840 even though digging has continued ever since no evidence has been found to support an evolution jump.

Danie JD
Danie JD

It may mean that we can push the starting date much further back, because it is highly improbable that this find is a once-off.

BHARAT NARAYAN
BHARAT NARAYAN

brown bear secrets are more interesting though this is a milestone success

Adrian Mesch
Adrian Mesch

Some pics of the actual bones discovered?

pierre lamarque
pierre lamarque

could it be that life was created on earth itself,in its oceans and that fragments from outer space only brought the ingredients to make this feasible?was earth selected?we are looking for evidence of lifeforms on other planets and up to now we haven't been successful.even the rover on mars failed to detect a gas that proved that the now red planet sustained life long ago.

Amy Penney
Amy Penney

A photo of the found bones would be nice.

fida w.
fida w.

we are bony fishes !!!!!!!!


Jamie Jang
Jamie Jang

photo of the actual discovered skull?

Marian Lee
Marian Lee

Love National Geographics findings and studies. So interesting. Amazing.

Anne Tarr
Anne Tarr

So...where's the picture of the fossil?

Emily Kim
Emily Kim

and how was this fossil found?

Emily Kim
Emily Kim

so this fish fossil was found in China?? 

William Hagen
William Hagen

It looks like the first weasel-eyed fish-face to me....

craig hill
craig hill

The caption to the illustration contradicts the sense of the question posed in the headline.  "The first fish face" is the far less intelligent version of "the oldest known fish face".  iow, we know too little of the past to call anything "the first" or anything beyond the "oldest KNOWN". 

It's an ongoing shame the writer of an article is unintelligently undermined by an editor who inaccurately sensationalizes scientific work with a poor headline, or a caption writer who doesn't get the difference and doesn't much care, but only cares to dumb down to his level what becomes, by his hand, misinformation. 

craig hill
craig hill

The caption to the illustration contradicts the sense of the question posed in the headline.  "The first fish face" is the far less intelligent version of "the oldest known fish face".  iow, we know too little of the past to call anything "the first" or anything beyond the "oldest KNOWN". 

Mitra R. Ramkissoon
Mitra R. Ramkissoon

Paleoartists really do have a difficult job in putting together the 'look' for these long extinct creatures. Great job.

Babu Ranganathan
Babu Ranganathan

NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION: Only micro-evolution, or evolution within biological "kinds," is genetically possible (such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.), but not macro-evolution, or evolution across biological "kinds," (such as from sea sponge to human). How could species have survived if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems, etc. were still evolving? A partially evolved trait or organ that is not complete and fully functioning from the start would be a liability to a species, not a survival asset. Plants and animals in the process of macro-evolution would be unfit for survival. For example, “if a leg of a reptile were to evolve (over supposedly millions of years) into a wing of a bird, it would become a bad leg long before it became a good wing” (Dr. Walt Brown, scientist and creationist). Survival of the fittest actually would have prevented evolution across biological kinds! Read my Internet article: WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS! (2nd Edition).

All species of plants and animals in the fossil record are found complete, fully-formed, fully functional. This is powerful evidence that species did not come into existence gradually by any macro-evolutionary process but, rather, came into existence as complete and ready-to-go from the very beginning which is possible only by special creation.

What about genetic and biological similarities between species? Genetic information, like other forms of information, cannot happen by chance, so it is more logical to believe that genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life are due to a common Designer who designed similar functions for similar purposes. It doesn't mean all forms of life are biologically related! Also, "Junk DNA" isn't junk. These "non-coding" segments of DNA have recently been found to be vital in regulating gene expression (i.e. when, where, and how genes are expressed). Read my popular Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn't produce biological traits or variations. It can only "select" from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. The term "natural selection" is a figure of speech. Nature doesn't do any conscious selecting. If a variation occurs in a species (i.e. change in skin color) that helps the species survive then that survival is called being "selected." That's all it is. Natural selection is a passive process in nature, not a creative process.

The real issue is what biological variations are possible, not natural selection. Only limited evolution, variations of already existing genes and traits, is possible. Nature is mindless and has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new traits.

Evolutionists believe and hope that over, supposedly millions of years, random genetic mutations caused by environmental radiation will generate entirely new genes. This is total blind and irrational faith on the part of evolutionists. It's much like believing that randomly changing the sequence of letters in a romance novel, over millions of years, will turn it into a book on astronomy! That's the kind of blind faith macro-evolutionists have.

Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION .

I discuss: Punctuated Equilibria, "Junk DNA," genetics, mutations, natural selection, fossils, dinosaur “feathers,” the genetic and biological similarities between various species, etc., etc.

Babu G. Ranganathan*
B.A. Bible/Biology

Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

*I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I've been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who in The East" for my writings on religion and science.

Tim Morris
Tim Morris

@Alison Steward Maybe actually read about the evidence for evolution, instead of being a sheep. I can suggest many good books.

Jaqueline Kuma
Jaqueline Kuma

@Alison Steward 

Basically, no. The "theory" of creationism is backwards and not real science. Science changes the theory based on new facts; creationism automatically rejects any facts that don't fit the pre-formed "theory."

Laura W.
Laura W.

@Marian Lee National Geographic didn't find this one, it was in the journal Nature.

Ken Albertsen
Ken Albertsen

@Babu Ranganathan 

Babu, you're wrong. There are remnant limbs in many animals and marine mammals. There are evolving limbs in many animals. The same applies to plants and also applies to other parts of the body - again, pertaining to a slew of species. Your creationist views don't have any credence.

Peter Blaise Monahon
Peter Blaise Monahon

@Babu Ranganathan , you can't "... defend creation ..." because (a) no one is attacking it, and (b) it's something without evidence, so it's a belief that takes faith.

Faith is what you have when you have no reason to have faith.

If you had reasons, then you would not need faith.

I wonder why you spend so much energy on speculative reasoning -- are you unsure of your faith?

Greg Peterson
Greg Peterson

Babu, in a general pile of nonsense, I'll select just one thing: The analogy of a romance novel becoming a book on astronomy by random changes to the letters. No, evolution is nothing like that, because there is nothing to select for and maintain one random change over another. Your understanding of evolution appears to be quite shallow. There are several excellent books outlining the overwhelming evidence for the fact of evolution, including some by people of faith. "Only a Theory" by Ken Miller is especially good, and he is a Christian. Atheist Jerry Coyen's "Why Evolution is True" is also very good. "Your Inner Fish," by Neil Shubin, also a great resource. Get to work, bro. Your objections to the fact of evolution have been adequately answered, and the truth is so much more interesting than creationism hopes to be.

natalie kowalk
natalie kowalk

@Greg Peterson Well said. Let me add to that with the wise words of the "Great One" I am of course talking about David Attenborough. 

"In early 2009, the BBC broadcast an Attenborough one-hour special, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. In reference to the programme, Attenborough stated that "People write to me that evolution is only a theory. Well, it is not a theory. Evolution is as solid a historical fact as you could conceive. Evidence from every quarter. What is a theory is whether natural selection is the mechanism and the only mechanism. That is a theory. But the historical reality that dinosaurs led to birds and mammals produced whales, that's not theory."[74] He strongly opposes creationism and its offshoot "intelligent design", saying that a survey that found a quarter of science teachers in state schools believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science lessons was "really terrible" 

 & 

In March 2009 Attenborough appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Attenborough stated that he felt evolution did not rule out the existence of a God and accepted the title of agnostic saying, "My view is: I don't know one way or the other but I don't think that evolution is against a belief in God.-- Yeah I got that from Wikipedia, so what! That man is a genius.

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