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Science

Humans might have come from Europe, not Africa, scientists claim

Has history been rewritten?

The birthplace of the human race may be Mediterranean Europe and not Africa, a controversial new discovery suggests.

Scientists base the claim on an analysis of two very ancient fossils – an upper premolar tooth found in Azmaka, Bulgaria and a lower jawbone unearthed in Pyrgos Vassilissis, today part of Athens, Greece.

Evidence indicates that the ape-like creature they belonged to was the oldest pre-human known, dating back as far as 7.2 million years.

Graecopithecus freybergi is said to be several hundred thousand years older than the most ancient potential human ancestor discovered in Africa, Sahelanthropus, from Chad.

(Wolfgang Ge7.24 million year old tooth rber/University of Tubingen/PA)
This is what a 7.24 million-year-old upper premolar tooth looks like (Wolfgang Gerber/University of Tubingen/PA)

The implication is that humans split from their ape cousins not in Africa, as has been widely assumed, but Europe.

For more than 40 years, the “cradle of humanity” has been firmly located in East Africa, where hundreds of fossils of humans and pre-humans were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Graecopithecus fossils, described in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, were found to have dental traits seen in modern humans, early humans and pre-humans, but not great apes.

CT (computer tomography) scans were used to visualise the internal structure of the tooth and jawbone.

Lead researcher Professor Madelaine Bohme, also from the University of Tubingen, said: “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 including Ardipithecus and Australopithecus.”

lower jaw of Graecopithecus freybergi dated 7.175 million years ago (Wolfgang Gerber/University of Tubingen/PA)
And here’s a 7.175 million-year-old Lower jaw (Wolfgang Gerber/University of Tubingen/PA)

Both the Greek and Bulgarian fossils were roughly 7.2 million years old, dating them to a time when the Mediterranean region was covered in Africa-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 savannah conditions in Europe, confirmed by the discovery of grass-derived plant silicate particles called phytoliths, coincided with the emergence of the Sahara desert in north Africa.

Prof Bohme added: “The incipient formation of a desert in North Africa more than seven million years ago and the spread of savannahs in southern Europe may have played a central role in the splitting of the human and chimpanzee lineages.”

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