The birthplace of modern man may have been the eastern Mediterranean, rather than Africa, according to scientists studying newly discovered ancient fossils of a tooth and lower jawbone.
The remnants, found in Bulgaria and Greece, belonged to an ape-like creature, Graecopithecus freybergi – believed to be the oldest known pre-human, dating back as far as 7.2 million years.
That means it was hundreds of thousands of years older than what was previously thought to be the most ancient potential human ancestor discovered in East Africa, long known as “the cradle of humanity”.
Researchers from an international team at the University of Tubingen in Germany say the findings entirely change the beginning of human history and place the last common ancestor of both chimpanzees and humans – the so-called missing link – in the Mediterranean region.
The controversial claim is based on the dental characteristics of the Graecopithecus fossils, according to lead researcher Professor Madelaine Bohme.
“While great apes typically have two or three separate and diverging roots, the roots of Graecopithecus converge and are partially fused – a feature that is characteristic of modern humans, early humans and several pre-humans,” she said.
The age of the Greek and Bulgarian fossils dates them to a time when the Mediterranean region was covered in African-like savannah grassland and home to giraffes, gazelles, and rhinos.
Co-author Professor David Begun, from the University of Toronto in Canada, said: “This dating allows us to move the human-chimpanzee split into the Mediterranean area.”
The creation of grassland in Europe forced apes to find new food sources, sparking a shift towards bipedalism at a time when the Sahara desert was emerging in north Africa.
“This study changes the ideas related to the knowledge about the time and the place of the first steps of the humankind,” said Professor Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
“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… Therefore, like humans, he has wide molars and thick enamel.”