Scientists have long believed that the first human beings split from their pre-human ancestors in Africa. But new research out of the University of Toronto suggests that the earliest human/chimp ancestor arose in the Mediterranean instead.
The discovery that prompted this change in theory were a jawbone and some teeth that were found in Athens and Bulgaria, respectively. These fossilized specimens are from a creature called the Graecopithecus freybergi that lived 7.2 million years ago. Researchers believe this may be the oldest human species that evolved after the split from our human/chimpanzee ancestors.
The jawbone was found in 1944, and the teeth were discovered in 2009. But they were just recently re-studied using newer techniques, such as CT scans and computer tomography. Scientists also dated the rock that both sets of fossils were found in.
3-D models of the fossils determined that the teeth of the Graecopithecus freybergi had fused roots. While this does not sound like an exciting finding, it is significant because great apes’ tooth roots are fused. So, the fossil’s teeth are more characteristic of human and pre-human teeth than the teeth of apes.
These fossils are also at least 7.2 million years old, which is more ancient than the oldest-known pre-humans that arose in Africa. The oldest African pre-human species is the Sahelantropus, which only lived between 6 and 7 million years ago in the country now known as Chad.
Scientists still agree that Homo sapiens, or the modern human species, first evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago. These new findings do not change that general consensus. It does alter that the long-held belief that the evolution of the human species occurred entirely within the African continent.
Many current African animals actually originated in Europe and Asia and only later made their way to Africa. It is possible that Graecopithecus freybergi did so, too. The environmental changes that were occurring in the Mediterranean region 7 million+ years ago may have assisted the evolution of these early pre-humans. It may have been the spread of grasslands across southern Europe at the time that played a role in the split of the human and chimpanzee species. This would have occurred while deserts spread across northern Africa.