Fossils unearthed in southern Germany of a remarkable ape that lived about 11.6 million years ago may dramatically alter the understanding of the evolutionary origins of a fundamental human trait – walking upright on two legs.
Scientists on Wednesday said the ape, called Danuvius guggenmosi, combined attributes of humans – straight lower limbs adapted for bipedalism – with those of apes – long arms able to stretch out to grasp tree branches. That indicates Danuvius was able to walk upright on two legs and also use all four limbs while clambering through trees.
It is the oldest-known example of upright walking in apes.
The discovery suggests that bipedalism originated in a common ancestor of humans and the great apes – a group that includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – that inhabited Europe rather than an ancestor from Africa, the continent where our species Homo sapiens first appeared roughly 300,000 years ago, the researchers said.
Until now, the oldest fossil evidence of bipedalism in humankind’s evolutionary tree dated to about 6 million years ago: fossils from Kenya of an extinct member of the human lineage called Orrorin tugenensis as well as footprints on the Mediterranean island of Crete. If Danuvius turns out to be ancestral to humans, that would mean that some of its descendants at some point made their way to Africa.
“Danuvius changes the why, when and where of evolution of bipedality dramatically,” said paleoanthropologist Madelaine Böhme of the University of Tübingen in Germany, who led the research published in the journal Nature.
The discovery of Danuvius may shatter the prevailing notion of how bipedalism evolved: that perhaps 6 million years ago in East Africa a chimpanzee-like ancestor started to walk on two legs after environmental changes created open landscapes and savannahs where forests once dominated.