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The Most Recent European Great Ape Discovered

11 January 2012 Universitaet Tübingen

Based on a hominid molar, scientists from Germany, Bulgaria and France have documented that great apes survived in Europe in savannah-like landscapes until seven million years ago.

A seven million year old pre-molar of a hominid discovered near the Bulgarian town of Chirpan documents that great apes survived longer in Europe than previously believed. An international team of scientists from the Bulgarian Academy of Science, the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and Madelaine Böhme from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen was involved in the project. The new discovery may cause a revision in our understanding of some major steps in hominid evolution. To date scientists have assumed that great apes went extinct in Europe at least 9 million years ago because of changing climatic and environmental conditions. Under the direction of Nikolai Spassov from the National Museum of Natural Science in Sofia, Bulgaria, the molar was discovered in Upper Miocene fluvial sediments near Chirpan. The morphology and the great thickness of the tooth enamel point to a hominid fossil. The age of the fossiliferous sands at 7 million years reveals the fossil to be most recent known great ape from continental Europe.

Until now, the most recent fossil was that of a 9.2 million year old specimen of Ouranopithecus macedonensis from Greece. Hominids therefore were thought to have disappeared from Europe prior to 9 million years ago. At this time, European terrestrial ecosystems had been changed from mostly evergreen and lush forests to savannah-like landscapes with a seasonal climate. It had been thought that great apes, which typically consume fruits, were unable to survive this change due to a seasonal deficiency of fruits.

The scientists found animals typical of a savannah in the fossil-bearing layer: several species of elephants, giraffes, gazelles, antelopes, rhinos, and saber-toothed cats. This discovery suggests that European hominids were able to adapt to the seasonal climate of a savannah-like ecosystem. This conclusion is further corroborated by electron microscope analysis of the tooth’s masticatory surface, which reveals that the Bulgarian hominid had consumed hard and abrasive objects like grass, seeds, and nuts. In this respect, the feeding behavior of this animal resembles that of later African hominids from about 4 million years ago (e.g. australopithecids like ‘Lucy’).

„We now also need to rethink where the origin of humans took place,” says Professor Madelaine Böhme of the University of Tübingen. So far, most scientists believe that human evolution happened exclusively in Africa and that humans migrated from Africa to other continents. “There is increasing evidence, however, that a significant part of human evolution happened outside Africa, in Europe and western Asia”.

That migration plays a major role in early hominid evolution was documented by paleontologists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment in June 2011, when they presented an early Eurasian hominid. A further piece to the puzzle had furthermore been an isolated molar tooth excavated southwest of Sigmaringen, Germany, and dated to 17 million years ago. The Tübingen group of paleoclimatologists led by Böhme reconstructed the climate at this time and demonstrated that great apes dispersed at this time under a tropical-subtropical and humid climate from Africa into Europe. Together, both investigations document an at least 10 million year lasting population of great apes in Europe and a significant evolution from fruit-eaters to harder object feeders.

Attached files

  • Professor Madelaine Böhme (right) and geologist Philipe Havlik at the archeological site near Chirpan/Bulgaria Image Credit: Prof. Madelaine Böhme


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