Early Human Ancestor Disproved?

Christine Dell’Amore, National Geographic News, October 27, 2009

A creature that could fit in your hand has long been seen as the strongest evidence that humans and apes originated in Africa.

But now scientists say 50-million-year-old Algeripithecus was not an ape or human ancestor and was more like today’s lemurs, after all.

What’s more, a new study of the 3-ounce (85-gram) fossil species could add weight to the idea that our earliest ancestors arose not in Africa but in Asia.

Discovered in 1992 in what is now northern Africa, Algeripithecus is considered to be the oldest known ape ancestor on that continent.

But the new analysis suggests the creature belonged to another ancient primate group, the crown strepsirhines.

Crown strepsirhines, which are not in the human ancestry, gave rise to modern-day lemurs, galagos, and lorises.

Oldest Human Ancestors From Asia?

Asia is the only other known region where ape ancestors have been found. Whether apes arose there or in Africa is a “hotly contested issue” in the study of ancient primates, the study says.

The Africa theory rests heavily on Algeripithecus, now apparently exposed as a non-ape ancestor.

Other than Africa, Asia is the most logical ape-ancestor “birthplace,” study leader Rodolphe Tabuce, of France’s University of Montpellier, said in an email.

But evolutionary anthropologist Blythe Williams said “absence of evidence” is not enough to lend credence to an out-of-Asia theory.

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But she does agree that Tabuce and colleagues’ research weakens the case for an African origin.

Toothcomb Technicality

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Despite the new evidence, Algeripithecus is still a crucial figure in early primate evolution–but instead as one of the oldest known examples of a crown strepsirhine, the study says.

Duke’s Williams said the study’s findings are helpful for scientists tracing how apes became human.

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