We’ve always assumed that the last common ancestors we share with chimpanzees originated in Africa. But new research, published in the journal PLOS One, suggests that the first pre-humans might have actually originated in Europe 7 million years ago.
A team of researchers analyzed a set of fossils that belong to the Graecopithecus freybergi species: a jaw discovered in Greece and an upper premolar discovered in Bulgaria.
The jaw bone was found in 1944 when German soldiers were digging into the ground to build a bunker in Greece. Now, thanks to the technological advances of the 21st century, scientists are able to examine the fossils using computer tomography.
Thanks to their examinations, scientist saw that the premolars are fused, which is a characteristic present in modern humans.
“We were surprised by our results, as pre-humans were previously known only from sub-Saharan Africa,” said Jochen Fuss, a Ph.D. student who was part of the study.
This new research tells us that the major splits between the hominid family might have occurred outside of Africa.
Scientists believe that the split in the hominid family occurred due to environmental changes. They used technology to reconstruct what the geological conditions looked like in the Mediterranean and the Sahara and found that the desert extended to Southern Europe.
This means that there was a barrier between Africa and the locations where the Graecopithecus fossils were found.
“The food of the Graecopithecus was related to the rather dry and hard savanna vegetation, unlike that of the recent great apes which are living in forests,” said Nikolai Spassov, a professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. “Therefore, like humans, he has wide molars and thick enamel.”
“To some extent, this is a newly discovered missing link. But missing links will always exist because evolution is an infinite chain of subsequent forms. Probably El Graeco’s face will resemble a great ape, with shorter canines.” Professor Spassov went on.
Their analysis showed that the Graecopithecus fossil was a few hundred thousand years older than the oldest pre-human found in Africa, the 6 million-year-old Sahelanthropus from Chad.
Another professor who took part in the study, Dr. David Begun, confirmed the new theories by saying: “This dating allows us to move the human-chimpanzee split into the Mediterranean area.”
Before the Sahara existed in North Africa, researchers believe that most of Southern Europe was a vast savanna.
They studied microscopic fragments of charcoal and plant particles, called phytoliths, that originated in tropical grasslands and the savanna. This is the first time these types of fragments were found in that part of Europe
“The phytolith record provides evidence of severe droughts, and the charcoal analysis indicates recurring vegetation fires. In summary, we reconstructed a savanna, which fits with the giraffes, gazelles, antelopes, and rhinoceroses that were found together with Graecopithecus,” said Professor Nikolai Spassov.
“The incipient formation of a desert in North Africa more than seven million years ago and the spread of savannas in Southern Europe may have played a central role in the splitting of the human and chimpanzee lineages,” said Professor Madelaine Böhme, another researcher in the study.
As with any new groundbreaking discovery, the study has been met with widespread skepticism. Particularly, many scientists are not convinced by the claim that the Graecopithecus is a hominid species.
“It is possible that the human lineage originated in Europe, but very substantial fossil evidence places the origin in Africa, including several partial skeletons and skulls,” said Dr. Peter Andrews, from London.
“I would be hesitant about using a single character from an isolated fossil to set against the evidence from Africa,” he added in an interview with The Telegraph.
Other scientists, like Sergio Almécija from George Washington University, highlight the fact that analyzing a single part of a skeleton isn’t enough to assume that humans originated in Europe or that the Graecopithecus is a hominid. “Single characters are not reliable to make big evolutionary [claims].”