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In the last few months, China has begun intensively investigating questions relating to human origins in an effort to discover whether their nation has been one of the cradles of civilizations. This was spurred on by the proposal made by a few scholars that Asia is the cradle of the first humans and not Africa. Now a new discovery may go some way in unravelling the mystery.
In the province of Yunnan, Chinese archaeologists have discovered a six million year old cranium of a juvenile ape , a primate that lived in the period when the first humans appeared which is about 7 to 5 million years ago (during the Miocene period). It is believed that the finding will help palaeontologists in their search of human origins.
While such fossils are common in Africa, it is something rare in Asia. The skull is well preserved and most of the facial bones have been maintained, which can give information about the morphology and growth of Lufengpithecus, a name given to apes found in different areas of Asia since 1950 dating back between 11 and 7 million years ago.
It is important to note that a debate has started between archaeologists and researchers in different continents to try to establish their countries as the origin of humans. A similar effort has been made in Australia by Steven and Evan Strong suggesting that the first humans actually started in Australia rather than Africa.
While the evidence in Australia is not yet enough to support such a theory, in China several findings over the last few years have given some validity to their claims. Another possibility is that humanity did not just begin in one place, but that there were in fact multiple ‘cradles of mankind’, which may have existed in different isolated places all around Earth.
Researchers discover rare fossil ape cranium in China
A team of researchers has discovered the cranium of a fossil ape from Shuitangba, a Miocene site in Yunnan Province, China. The juvenile cranium of the fossil ape Lufengpithecus is significant, according to team member Nina Jablonski, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Penn State.
Jablonski noted that juvenile crania of apes and hominins are extremely rare in the fossil record, especially those of infants and young juveniles. This cranium is only the second relatively complete cranium of a young juvenile in the entire Miocene—23-25 million years ago—record of fossil apes throughout the Old World, and both were discovered from the late Miocene of Yunnan Province.
The cranium is also noteworthy for its age. Shuitangba, the site from which it was recovered, at just over 6 million years old, dates to near the end of the Miocene, a time when apes had become extinct in most of Eurasia. Shuitangba has also produced remains of the fossil monkey, Mesopithecus, which represents the earliest occurrence of monkeys in East Asia.
Jablonski was co-author of a recent paper online in the Chinese Science Bulletin that described the discovery.
"The preservation of the new cranium is excellent, with only minimal post-depositional distortion," Jablonski said. "This is important because all previously discovered adult crania of the species to which it is assigned, Lufengpithecus lufengensis, were badly crushed and distorted during the fossilization process. In living ape species, cranial anatomy in individuals at the same stage of development as the new fossil cranium already show a close resemblance to those of adults."
Therefore, the new cranium, despite being from a juvenile, gives researchers the best look at the cranial anatomy of Lufengpithecus lufengensis.
"Partly because of where and when Lufengpithecus lived, it is considered by most to be in the lineage of the extant orangutan, now confined to Southeast Asia but known from the late Pleistocene of southern China as well," Jablonski said.
However, the researchers noted the cranium shows little resemblance to those of living orangutans, and in particular, shows none of what are considered to be key diagnostic features of orangutan crania. Lufengpithecus therefore appears to represent a late surviving lineage of Eurasian apes, but with no certain affinities yet clear.
The survival of this lineage is not entirely surprising since southern China was less affected by climatic deterioration during the later Miocene that resulted in the extinction of many ape species throughout the rest of Eurasia. The researchers are hopeful that further excavations will produce the remains of adult individuals, which will allow them to better assess the relationships among members of this lineage as well as the relationships of this lineage to other fossil and extant apes.
New Ape Species Named After 13-Million-Year-Old Skull Discovery
Alesi, the skull of the new extinct ape species Nyanzapithecus alesi.
Map of Africa and Kenya, showing the location of Napudet, where Alesi was found.
Alesi partially excavated after careful removal of loose sand and rocks with dental picks and brushes.
Newswise — A 13-million-year-old infant ape skull &ndash the oldest known fossil of its kind &ndash is a new species that enhances knowledge of ape and human evolution, according to a study by an international team of scientists, including Craig S. Feibel at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
&ldquoWe have a beautiful ape cranium (skull) from a period that we knew virtually nothing about, and this is one of those wonderful cases where discovery leads to all sorts of new and interesting perspectives,&rdquo said Feibel, who chairs Rutgers&rsquo Department of Anthropology and is a professor of geology and anthropology. &ldquoIt&rsquos a major finding that fills a large gap in the evolutionary record.&rdquo
The most complete fossil ape skull discovered to date was found at the 13 million-year-old Middle Miocene site of Napudet in South Turkana, Kenya, according to the study published online in Nature today. Its species name &ndash Nyanzapithecus alesi (Ales is the Turkana word for ancestor) &ndash is based on the unerupted permanent teeth that were revealed by high-tech synchrotron imaging used to peer inside the skull. Evidence suggests that Nyanzapithecines were close to the original ancestor of today&rsquos apes.
Little is known about the evolution of ape skulls millions of years ago. The record of African fossil hominoids (primates that include apes, humans and their ancestors) lacked a nearly complete cranium from between 17 million and 7 million years ago, the study notes. And until now, no cranial specimens between 14 million to 10 million years ago had been discovered, greatly hampering the study of hominoid evolution. The African fossil record during the Miocene geological epoch, about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago, largely consists of isolated jaws and teeth.
Feibel, who has been studying Kenyan geology for more than 30 years, said Napudet offers a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago.
&ldquoA nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil and countless trees,&rdquo said Feibel, who worked out the challenging geology at the site. &ldquoThe skull came out of a layer of volcanic ash, and just below it was a lava flow of basalt that&rsquos slightly older than the skull.&rdquo
He and Sara Mana, one of 13 study co-authors and a former Rutgers doctoral student who teaches at Salem State University in Massachusetts, swung sledge hammers to get basalt samples. Mana analyzed them in a lab at Rutgers&rsquo Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and pinpointed their age.
Nyanzapithecines, a long-lived and diverse group of Miocene hominoids, likely are close to the first species of hominoids. They first appear in the fossil record during the end of the Oligocene geological epoch in Africa (from about 33.9 million to 23 million years ago) and persisted until perhaps the late Miocene, the study says.
The Nyanzapithecus alesi cranium suggests that the species was slower and less agile than acrobatic, arm-swinging apes such as gibbons, the study says.
The Rutgers Geology Museum in New Brunswick plans to display a cast of the infant ape skull at its 50th annual open house on Jan. 27, 2018.
&ldquoOne of the fun things about this field is that it is so discovery driven,&rdquo Feibel said. &ldquoOne new fossil can totally change your perspective on things, and they frequently do. More fossil prospecting at the Napudet site is well worth it since the chances of finding really exciting stuff there are very high.&rdquo
Huge otter fossil, millions of years old, discovered in China
It's thought it roamed around the warm, humid wetlands more than six million years ago.
Named Siamogale melilutra, the huge otter would have weighed around 110lb (50kg) and been up to two metres in length.
That's far bigger than even the largest otters alive today, researchers said.
The South American giant river otter for example weighs up to about 70lb (32 kg).
"Siamogale melilutra reminds us, I think, of the diversity of life in the past and how many more questions there are still to answer," said Denise Su, Cleveland Museum of Natural History curator of paleobotany and paleoecology.
"Who would have imagined a wolf-size otter?"
The earliest known otter lived about 18 million years ago.
Fossils are rare and scattered across the globe, making the study of otter evolution more challenging.
This fossil suggests the otter would have had strong jaws an enlarged cheek teeth.
"I think it used its powerful jaws to crush hard clams for food, somewhat like modern sea otters, although the latter use stone tools to smash shells," said Xiaoming Wang, head of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
"If Siamogale melilutra was not smart enough to figure out tools, perhaps the only option left was to develop more powerful jaws by increasing body size."
The fossils were found in China's Yunnan Province.
An almost complete cranium and lower jaw, teeth and limb bones were among the finds.
Although the skill had long been crushed during the fossilisation process, experts were able to reconstruct it digitally.
It revealed the animal had otter-like and badger-like qualities.
The same region has yielded a variety of other fossils, including an important ape skull, along with elephants, beavers, deer, crocodiles, swans and ducks.
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Researchers discover rare fossil ape cranium in China
A team of scientists from Penn State, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Arizona State University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and the Yunnan Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute has announced a new cranium of a fossil ape from Shuitangba, a Miocene site in Yunnan Province, China.
The new juvenile cranium of the fossil ape Lufengpithecus, recently described online in the Chinese Science Bulletin, is a significant discovery because juvenile crania of apes and hominins are extremely rare in the fossil record, especially those of infants and young juveniles. The new cranium is only the second relatively complete cranium of a young juvenile in the entire Miocene (23-5 million years ago) record of fossil apes throughout the Old World, and both were discovered from the late Miocene of Yunnan Province. The new cranium is also noteworthy for its age. Shuitangba, the site from which it was recovered, at just over 6 million years, dates to near the end of the Miocene, a time when apes had become extinct in most of Eurasia. Shuitangba has also produced remains of the fossil monkey, Mesopithecus, which represents the earliest occurrence of monkeys in East Asia.
"The fossils recovered from Shuitangba constitute one of the most important collections of late Miocene fossils brought to light in recent decades because they represent a snapshot from a critical transitional period in earth history," said Dr. Nina Jablonski, co-author and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Penn State. "The ape featured in the current paper typifies animals from the lush tropical forests that blanketed much of the world's subtropical and tropical latitudes during the Miocene epoch, while the monkey and some of the smaller mammals exemplify animals from the more seasonal environments of recent times."
Jay Kelley, Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, said, "The preservation of the new cranium is excellent, with only minimal post-depositional distortion. This is important because all previously discovered adult crania of the species to which it is assigned, Lufengpithecus lufengensis, were badly crushed and distorted during the fossilization process. In living ape species, cranial anatomy in individuals at the same stage of development as the new fossil cranium already show a close resemblance to those of adults.
"Therefore, the new cranium, despite being from a juvenile, gives researchers the best look at the cranial anatomy of Lufengpithecus lufengensis," he noted. "Partly because of where and when Lufengpithecus lived, it is considered by most to be in the lineage of the extant orangutan, now confined to Southeast Asia but known from the late Pleistocene of southern China as well. "
The team notes that however, the new cranium shows little resemblance to those of living orangutans, and in particular, shows none of what are considered to be key diagnostic features of orangutan crania. Lufengpithecus therefore appears to represent a late surviving lineage of Eurasian apes, but with no certain affinities yet clear. The survival of this lineage is not entirely surprising since southern China was less affected by the climatic deterioration during the later Miocene that resulted in the extinction of many ape species throughout the rest of Eurasia. The researchers are hopeful that renewed excavations will produce the remains of adult individuals, which will allow them to better assess both the relationships among members of this lineage as well as the relationships of this lineage to other fossil and extant apes.
"In addition to the ape, we have recovered hundreds of specimens of other animals and plants," said co-author Dr. Denise Su, Curator of Paleobotany and Paleoecology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "We are looking forward to going back to Shuitangba next year to continue fieldwork and, hopefully, find more specimens of not only the ape but other animals and plants that will tell us more about the environment. Given what we have recovered so far, Shuitangba has great potential to help us learn more about the environment in the latest part of the Miocene in southern China and the evolution of the plants and animals found there."
The team of scientists include: Xue-Ping Ji, Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, China Nina Jablonski, Penn State Denise Su, Cleveland Museum of Natural History Cheng Long Deng, State Key Laboratory of Lithospheric Evolution, China J. Lawrence Flynn, Harvard University You-Shan You, Zhaotong Institute of Cultural Relics, China and Jay Kelley, Arizona State University.
The project was supported by the National Science Foundation, Bryn Mawr College, American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the Yunnan National Science Foundation, the Zhaotong government, National Basic Research Program of China, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.
A. afarensis lived in East Africa between about 4 million and 3 million years ago. It is important to the understanding of human evolution because it might have been the ape-like species from which the &lsquotrue&rsquo human genus, Homo, evolved about 2.8 million years ago. Over the past few decades, researchers have discovered dozens of fragments of australopithecine fossils in Ethiopia and Kenya that date back more than 4 million years. Most researchers think these older fossils belong to the earlier species, A. anamensis. It&rsquos generally thought that A. anamensisgradually morphed into A. afarensis, implying that the two species never coexisted.
The 3.8-million-year-old hominin skull, discovered at a site called Woranso-Mille in Ethiopia, now suggests otherwise. A team of palaeoanthropologists led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio discovered the specimen&mdashcalled the MRD cranium&mdashin 2016.
Features of the fossil&rsquos teeth and jaws suggest that it belongs to A. anamensis. That&rsquos an important conclusion because, until now, researchers had found only a few fragments of A. anamensis skulls.
&ldquoThe preservation of the specimen really is exceptional,&rdquo says Stephanie Melillo, a palaeoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who was involved in the latest work. The skull was found in just two large pieces, which she says is unfathomably unlikely for a specimen of this age. &ldquoWe just got really lucky with this find.&rdquo
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Six million year old ape cranium discovered in China - History
Although the fossils themselves have not been dated, the rock in which they were discovered is known to be six million years old.
The Kenya Palaeontology Expedition (KPE) said body parts belonging to at least five individuals, both male and female, had been recovered.
These included an almost perfectly fossilised left femur showing the hominid had strong back legs which enabled it to walk upright - a characteristic which relates the creature directly to man.
"Not only is this find older than any other previously known, it is also in a more advanced stage of evolution," KPE palaeontologist Dr Martin Pickford told a news conference in Nairobi.
The first specimens were unearthed on 25 October at Kapsomin in the Tugen hills in Kenya's Baringo district.
Other body fragments include pieces of jaw with teeth, isolated upper and lower teeth, arm bones and a finger bone.
"Preliminary studies of the arm and finger bones reveal that the Kapsomin hominid was an agile climber in the trees, whereas its leg bones indicate that when it was on the ground it walked on two legs," the KPE said in a statement.
"The teeth indicate that the species probably subsisted on hard-skinned fruits among the other foods . The canines are reduced when compared with those of apes, but are larger than those of modern humans," it added.
Dr Brigitte Senut, a team member from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, said the creature was about the size of a modern chimpanzee.
Pickford and Senut said they were confident the team would unearth even more remains that could help form a near-perfect picture of the hominid.
"We are just going to publish our initial findings, to get the excitement, and continue with our work," Dr Pickford said. "I am sure there is still a lot more out there - possibly even older."
Fossil parts of other species found at the same site hint at a rich variety of fauna and flora.
The KPE statement noted that the leg bones "had been chewed, indicating that the individuals to which they belonged probably fell prey to a large carnivore".
Pickford said: "It looks like he was killed and eaten by some sort of carnivore, probably a cat. It was probably dragged up a tree to the cat's usual eating place and then bits fell into the water below."
New age of the Lantian Homo erectus cranium extending to about 1.63 million years ago
The cranium of Lantian Homo erectus. Credit: HUANG Weiwen
According to paper published online November 20 in the Journal of Human Evolution, the age of the Lantian Homo erectus cranium from Gongwangling, Lantian County, Shaanxi Province, China, is likely half a million years older than previously thought. Earlier estimates dated this important fossil, which was found in 1964, to 1.15 million years ago. A research team of Chinese and British scientists, have provided compelling evidence that the fossil should be dated to 1.63 million years ago, making it the oldest fossil hominin cranium known in northeast Asia, and the second oldest site with cranial remains outside Africa. Only the Dmanisi crania from Georgia that, like Lantian, are relatively small-brained, are older, at around 1.75 million years old.
The new date for the Lantian cranium provides good evidence that small-brained hominins moved rapidly eastwards in a warm period just after 1.75 million years ago. The presence of fossils much further south, in Indonesia, that are only slightly younger (c. 1.5 – 1.6 million years ago), also opens up the possibility that hominins followed northern and southern dispersal routes from Africa into Asia.
The research team, of scientists from the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry of Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Exeter in United Kingdom and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IVPP), led by Professors ZHU Zhaoyu, Robin Dennell and HUANG Weiwen used a range of methods including loess-palaeosol stratigraphy, tectonic-geomorphology, sedimentology and mineralogy, geochemistry, palaeontology, paleomagnetism and rock magnetic methods to re-date the skull. Over 12 years (2001–2013) of research, they investigated some key geological sections by using high-resolution sampling, such as the Gongwangling and Jiacun sections in the Lantian basin of North China immediately north of the Qinling Mountains, and measured thousands of samples.
Based on reference and analysis of previous literature, four lines of new evidence from this research have been established to support a re-dating of the Gongwangling hominin from 1.15 to ca. 1.63 million years ago. First, the fossiliferous horizon cannot be attributed, as previously thought, to the 15th loess unit (L15), but lies below L15 and an underlying erosional surface, and there is therefore a stratigraphic break between L15 and the hominin horizon. Second, the fossil horizon is situated between the Gilsa Event (average age c. 1.62 million years ago) and the Olduvai Subchron (top age 1.77 million years ago) of the geomagnetic zones in the section, and thus the fossil horizon should correspond to the 22-23rd palaeosol units (S22
S23). Thirdly, the same type of subtropical faunal assemblage was found at both the Gongwangling sections and at Jiacun, and in the same stratigraphic position, i.e., S22–S23, between the Gilsa Event and the Olduvai Subchron. Fourthly, based on the palaeomagnetic time scale and the astronomical timescale of the Chinese loess-paleosol sequence, the age of the horizon of the Gongwangling fossil cranium should be about 1.63 million years ago, which was also a warm climatic period.
"This age is consistent with the geological context and the subtropical fossil fauna at Gongwangling, and also the small-brain size of the Gongwangling Homo erectus cranium, similar to that seen in Georgia and Indonesia", said HUANG Weiwen, a professor of the IVPP in Beijing.
"The revised age extends its age by about half a million years and makes the Gongwangling site a crucial benchmark in establishing the framework of the origin, migration and dispersal of early man in the Old World", said Robin Dennell of University of Exeter in United Kingdom, "It also provides reasonable evidence for re-evaluating the status of other early and controversial human fossils in China and Java. In addition, this new research rewrites the history of the Lantian hominin and provides additional knowledge of human evolution for the public".
The new dating of the Gongwangling cranium is a multi-disciplinary research based on the fine correlation between the Chinese loess strata (the loess-palaeosol sequence over a period of 2.5 million year) and marine oxygen isotope stages, and the results demonstrate again that the Chinese loess-palaeosol sequence should and will play an important role in studies of Quaternary global change and early human evolution over the last two million years.
This research was mainly supported by the National Basic Research Program of China and the Knowledge Innovation Program of CAS.
The Oldest Human Is 7.2 Million Years Old!
When Toumai ("Hope of Life" in the local Goran language) was found in Chad in 2001, that changed all the theories about human evolution. This ape-like human lived in a forested area, sharing its habitat with other monkeys and apes. It probably spent some time in the trees and perhaps walked upright.
A French team has determined the age of Toumai at between 6.8 and 7.2 million years old. When the nearly-complete cranium, pieces of jawbone and teeth of Toumai were found, a vivid debate began.
Critics said that Toumai's brain capacity was too small and its small size (1.2 m or 4 ft tall) was that of a walking chimp. This species, named Sahelanthropus tchadensis by French researcher Michel Brunet, was just a vulgar ape.
But in a new study published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," the French researchers made 3D computer reconstructions of the skull of Toumai to show that it differed significantly from gorillas and chimps, and they also pointed that Toumai could walk bipedally, a hard task for our primate cousins. Genetic data show that humans and chimps split 4-5 Ma ago, but if Toumai is truly an early human, that split was much earlier.
The skull and the brain (320-380 cubic centimeters) were no larger than those of a chimp, but the short, flattened face, the pronounced superciliary Arch (unlike in chimps and humans, and pointing that the individual was a male), the less pushed forward mouth and jaws (than in the case of the apes) and the smaller and shorter canines, with a worn-down tip, show that the creature was not a chimp. The molars are larger than a chimp's, but smaller than in early humans, showing that it ate less fruits.
Perhaps the most interesting trait in the Toumai's skull is the foramen magnum, the aperture at the base of the skull, where the spine cord connects to the brain. It has an oval, not round shape like in chimps. Its shape and location points out that Toumai could walk in an upright position.
This face looks more modern than that of the Australopithecus afarensis, which lived 3.6 to 2.9 million years ago. Toumai shows that the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees did not look much like a chimp, as previously thought, and chimps could have evolved many of their traits after splitting from humans.
"The radiochronological data concerning Sahelanthropus tchadensis . is an important cornerstone both for establishing the earliest stages of hominid evolution and for new calibrations of the molecular clock. Thus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis testifies that the last divergence between chimps and humans is certainly not much more recent than 8 Ma (million years ago.)", wrote Brunet.
Toumai also existed "very close in time to this divergence contrary to the unlikely 'provocative explanation,' which recently suggested a 'possible hybridization in the human-chimp lineage before finally separating less than 6.3 (million years ago)," wrote the authors.
The significance of Toumai is also given by the fact that his remains were discovered 2,500 km (1,500 mi) west of the Great Rift Valley, pointing that our early ancestors also roamed far wider from East Africa.