A recent analysis of fossils recovered in the 1990s in the village of Nikiti in northern Greece supports the controversial idea that apes, the ancestors of humans, evolved in Southeastern Europe instead of Africa.
The 8 or 9-million-year-old fossils had first been linked to the extinct ape called Ouranopithecus.
However, a team led by David Begun from the University of Toronto’s Department of Anthropology has recently analyzed the remains and determined that they likely belonged to a male animal from a potentially new species.
By inspecting the upper and lower jaw of the ancient European ape, the team suggested that humanity’s forebears may have evolved in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin’s day.
In 1871, Darwin proposed that all hominins, including both modern and extinct humans, descended from a group in Africa. This is the most widely accepted theory today.
Fossils in Greece belong to human ancestors
On the other hand, Darwin also speculated that hominins could also have originated in Europe, where fossils of large apes had already been discovered. The new analysis supports this theory.
While Begun does not believe the ape in Greece was a hominin, he speculates that it could represent the group from which hominins directly evolved.
The research team led by Begun had determined in 2017 that a 7.2-million-year-old ape called Graecopithecus, which also lived in what is now Greece, could be a hominin.
In this case, the 8-million to 9-million-year-old Nikiti ape would have directly preceded the first hominin, Graecopithecus, before hominins migrated to Africa seven million years ago.
According to a report in the journal New Scientist, Begun foresees that this new concept will be rejected by many experts who believe in African hominin origins, but he hopes that the new scenario will at least be considered.
Begun points out that Southeastern Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals such as the giraffe and rhino. “It’s widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today,” he told New Scientist. “If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?”
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team’s conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, the Nikiti ape may be completely unrelated to hominins. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew similarly to early hominins.