Thirteen million years ago, an infant ape died in Napudet area, West of Lake Turkana. Volcanic eruptions, common in that era covered its body with ash, and it lay there until 2014 when a group of anthropologists discovered its skull.
That discovery, it now emerges, could be what puts into clarity the shared ancestry of apes and man before their lineages split. It could also add a new dimension on the belief that early man evolved from Africa, and not Eurasia as some studies have suggested.
After three years of assessing the fossil, researchers believe it is the oldest common ancestor of human and apes discovered.
It is the most complete fossil ever found, and gives an extraordinary glimpse into early stages of ape evolution and how our ancestors may have looked like.
“This is huge news. Scientists have been getting fragments of fossils, but it is the first time we have gotten a complete one,” Isiah Nengo, anthropologist who led the discovery told the Sunday Standard.
The fossil has been named Nyanzapithecus Alesi by James Ekusi, a member of the research team who stumbled upon the skull while on a wild search. He derived the name ‘ales’ from Turkana word for ancestor. The researchers believe Alesi is a new species, never seen before.
Its molar teeth are similar in shape to species in the genus Nyanzapithecus, which indicates that Alesi belongs to this group. However, its teeth are much larger, suggesting that it was a larger species than the others.
Anthropologists believe apes emerged on earth about 25 million years ago after diverging from monkeys’ ancestors. The apes split into different lineages, but became extinct over time, and only one branch survived.
That branch is what brought forth chimpanzees, gorillas and man. Scientists’ biggest headache and research point has always been reconstructing the branch and finding the common ancestor of all apes. They agree that man evolved from an ape; but how did ancient ape look like before the species started evolving? The answer, it seems, has been lying in Kenya all along – in the skull of Alesi.
The lemon-sized skull discovered by an international team of researchers reveals the species had a small snout, flat face and resembled a baby gibbon. The region of the inner ear responsible for balance however shows it was not as agile and acrobatic in trees like gibbons. Had it grown fully, it is estimated to have weighed about 12 kilograms.
The fossil cold not reveal whether it was male or female, or cause of its death. Studies on its jaws indicate it was slightly below two years old.
An extremely sensitive form of 3-D X-ray imaging at the synchrotron facility in Grenoble, France was used to examine the fossil.
“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 Paul Tafforeau of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, in a press statement.
The discovery solidifies the belief that important history of the cradle of mankind lies in Africa.
Alesi brings a new narrative into the history of early man, and primate evolution. If explored, it could bring into context activities of a period of time that remains misunderstood. The research was published in this month’s issue of the prestigious journal Nature.