Ancient Ape Discovered: Last Ape-Human Ancestor?

November 18, 2004

In Spain scientists have discovered 13-million-year-old fossils of new species of ape. The species may have been the last common ancestor of humans and all great apes living today. (See pictures of the new ape species.)

The great apes—which later gave rise to humans and which now include orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas—are thought to have diverged from the lesser apes about 11 to 16 million years ago. Today's lesser apes include the gibbons.

The new species was christened Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, after the village, Els Hostalets de Pierola, and region, Catalonia, where it was found. Like great apes and humans, Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, had a stiff lower spine and other special adaptations for climbing trees.

The fossil skeleton's age would make it just old enough to be the last ancestor common to all modern great apes and humans, the researchers say in the November 19 issue of the journal Science. Or, if the ancestor wasn't Pierolapithecus exactly, it may have looked a lot like Pierolapithecus and been closely related.

Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Miguel Crusafont Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona, Spain led the team that made the discovery. He and his colleagues were just getting started at a new digging site near Barcelona when they discovered the first piece of the skeleton. It was a canine tooth, churned up by a bulldozer that was clearing the land for digging.

"Paleontologists in Spain say you don't find a good fossil, the good fossil finds you," Moyà-Solà said in a news release.

The researchers kept digging and uncovered one of the most complete skeletons ever found from this time period, the middle Miocene epoch.

Fossil evidence from this period is sparse. Researchers have long been searching for the great ape ancestors that emerged after the evolutionary split between the great apes and the lesser apes.

The scanty fossil record has revealed several contenders for the common ancestor, including Kenyapithecus and Equatorius or the older Morotopithecus and Afropithecus. But the fossils that do exist indicate that these ape species were more primitive than Pierolapithecus, Moyà-Solà said.

Why This Find Is Important

"The importance of this new fossil is that for the first time, all the key areas that define modern great apes are well preserved," Moyà-Solà said. The fossil find includes parts of the skull, ribcage, spine, hands, and feet, along with some other pieces (see picture gallery).

By studying the fossil bones, the researchers could tell that they belonged to an ape that shared many important similarities with modern great apes and humans.

Continued on Next Page >>




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