May 24, 2017 I Paul Seaburn

Oldest Human Ancestor Found in Europe, Not Africa

The phrase “This changes everything!” is used far too often, especially with an exclamation point indicating that life will never be the same, history must be rewritten and a revolution is imminent. However, two studies published this week contain a revelation that may qualify for both the exclamation and the point. Researchers say fossils found in Greece and Bulgaria indicate that the first hominin appeared in Europe 7.2 million years ago -- 200,000 years BEFORE they were believed to have appeared in Africa. Have they discovered the ‘missing link’? Does this change everything?

According to the two studies published in PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany were using new technology to study a jawbone found in 1944 by German soldiers in Greece. At the time of the discovery, the jaw and an upper premolar tooth found in Azmaka, Bulgaria, were attributed to a new species of ape called Graecopithecus freybergi and nicknamed El Graeco because of its Greek heritage.

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An upper premolar found in Bulgaria. (Wolfgang Gerber, University of Tübingen)

The jaw in question belonged to a primate that anthropologists had previously named Graecopithecus freybergi. In the new studies, researchers led by Madelaine Böhme of the Senckengberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen and Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences used a CT scan to study the teeth, which led to their remarkable and controversial conclusion, said Spassov.

Graecopithecus is not an ape. He is a member of the tribe of hominins and the direct ancestor of homo. The food of the Graecopithecus was related to the rather dry and hard savannah vegetation, unlike that of the recent great apes which are leaving in forests. Therefore, like humans, he has wide molars and thick enamel.

With paleomagnetic studies dating the fossils to 7.2 million years ago, that means El Graeco lived before the oldest African hominin, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, which was found in Chad. If that’s not controversial enough for you, check out Spassov’s description of El Graeco.

To some extent this is a newly discovered missing link. But missing links will always exist, because evolution is infinite chain of subsequent forms. Probably El Graeco's face will resemble a great ape, with shorter canines.

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Artist impression of Graecopithecus. (National Museum of Natural History, Assen Ignatov)

An ‘earliest homonin’ found in Europe instead of Africa is going please some people, but a ‘missing link’ resembling an ape will displease others. Then there’s Böhme’s speculation on what happened next.

I personally don't think that the descendants of Graecopithecus die out, they may have spread to Africa later. The split of chimps and humans was a single event. Our data support the view that this split was happening in the eastern Mediterranean - not in Africa. If accepted, this theory will indeed alter the very beginning of human history.

‘This changes everything!’ is a lot to expect from one jaw and one tooth. Are you ready to accept it?

Is the world?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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