The newly discovered ape fossil, nicknamed Alesi, comes from a critical time period in the African past and may be able to answer some of those questions. "This complete skull - it is now forever going to be a touchstone for all future studies in primate evolution and growth and development in the apes, so it's fantastic in that way".
"This discovery will help to fill in missing information regarding the adaptations that influenced ape and human evolutionary histories, and shed light on long-standing mysteries about at least one enigmatic ape species".
"We have a lovely ape cranium (skull) from a period that we knew virtually nothing about, and this is one of those wonderful cases where discovery leads to all sorts of new and interesting perspectives", says Craig Feibel, a professor of geology and anthropology at Rutgers University.
The full statement from the Leakey Foundatio is below.
© Isaiah Nengo, Photo by Christopher Kiarie.
"The living apes are found all across Africa and Asia-chimps and gorillas in Africa, orangutans and gibbons in Asia-and there are many fossil apes found on both continents, and Europe as well", Christopher Gilbert, paleoanthropologist at Hunter College in NY and co-author of the paper, tells Choi. Our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived in Africa 6 to 7 million years ago, and many fossil finds have suggested how humans evolved since then.
But nearly nothing is known about the earlier evolution of the common ancestors of "hominoids", the group that includes gibbons, great apes and humans.
During an expedition three years ago, Kenyan fossil hunter John Ekusi discovered the infant skull in the Turkana Basin of northern Kenya, reports Michael Price at Science. "The Napudet locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago", says Craig S. Feibel of Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Scientists say a nearby volcano buried the forest where the baby ape lived, preserving the fossil. "It also provided us with the critical volcanic minerals by which we were able to date the fossil". In a new study published today in Nature, a Stony Brook University research team led by Isaiah Nengo describe the almost complete skull, showing a number of adaptations that would go on to influence ape and human evolutionary histories. For analysis, the team used an extremely sensitive form of 3D X-ray imaging at the European Synchrotron Radiation facility in Grenoble, France. The shape of the teeth also showed it was a new species in the genus Nyanzapithecus, given a species designation of alesi.
It belonged to a new species called Nyanzapithecus alesi that was closely related to the common ancestor of people and modern apes although that ancestor likely was even older, University College London paleontologist Fred Spoor said. The species name is taken from the Turkana word for ancestor "ales".
Most fossils from more than 40 known extinct ape species amount to no more than jaw fragments or a few isolated teeth.
"Alesi came from exactly the right time and place to show us what the ancestors of all the modern apes and humans might have looked like", study co-author Ellen Miller, a primatologist and paleoanthropologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, told Live Science.
The small snout of the skull would have made Alesi look like a baby gibbon. "This gives the initial impression that it is an extinct gibbon", observes Chris Gilbert of Hunter College, New York. Faces resembling gibbons evolved independently in several extinct monkeys, apes and their relatives, the researchers say.
Dr Fred Spoor, a member of the global team from University College London, said: "Gibbons are well known for their fast and acrobatic behaviour in trees, but the inner ears of Alesi show that it would have had a much more cautious way of moving around".
"Nyanzapithecus alesi was part of a group of primates that existed in Africa for over 10 million years", says lead author Isaiah Nengo.