Nyanzapithecus Alesi was a common ancestor of humans and apes that lived 13 million years ago

Nyanzapithecus Alesi's skull (Photo courtesy Fred Spoor)
Nyanzapithecus Alesi’s skull (Photo courtesy Fred Spoor)

An article published in the journal “Nature” describes the discovery in Kenya of a skull belonging to an infant of a species of ape called Nyanzapithecus Alesi. About 13 million years ago, the specimen died at an estimated age of only 16 months but it’s not possible to determine its gender. The skull is the earliest found so far belonging to an ancestor of hominids and apes.

Alesi, as this infant was nicknamed, was discovered in 2014 by a fossil hunter in the 13 million year old rocky layers preserved thanks to a volcanic eruption that at that time buried the forest where its species lived. It’s the oldest skull found so far of a hominoid, meaning of a specimen belonging to a superfamily that includes hominids and apes.

The skull was subjected to a 3D X-ray imaging examination using a technique that allowed to reconstruct a 3D image. Thanks to it, the researchers were able to estimate the age at which Alesi died and above all to understand the characteristics of its brain, inner ear, and teeth. Those convinced the researchers that this specimen belonged to the Nyanzapithecus genus but its molars’ width indicated that it was a separate species.

The scarcity of fossils of common ancestors of humans and living apes made it difficult to get an idea of ​​what they looked like and determine where they originated. In the field of paleontology, often a new discovery can bring key information to better understand the origins and evolution of a whole group of species and this could be one of these cases.

In some ways, Nyanzapithecus Alesi looked like a gibbon but the in-depth examination of its skull revealed some very different characteristics. Gibbons live in trees and can acrobatically leap between branches while the structure of Nyanzapithecus Alesi’s inner ear shows a shape associated with slower movements.

Isaiah Nengo, the article’s lead author, explained that the discovery of Nyanzapithecus Alesi’s skull shows that the primate group it was part of was near the origin of modern apes and humans and that origin is African. To look for other fossils from that time, he intends to return to the area of Napudet, Kenya, where the skull was found. New discoveries could provide more information about the origin of humans and many primates.

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