New fossil could reshape our understanding of ape evolution

Doc1A fragmented skeleton dug out from a Spanish landfill may force scientists to redraw their theories on the ancestor of humans and all other apes. Pliobates cataloniae, described in the journal Science, reveals that the common ancestor of humans, gorillas and gibbons may have looked more gibbon-like than previously thought. Researchers believe that Old World monkeys and apes split off from each other around 25 million to 30 million years ago, and later the Old World apes split again into “lesser” apes (whose modern-day members include gibbons) and great apes (whose descendants today include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans).

“These lesser apes must have diverged quite early, like say between 15 and 20 million years ago, but the oldest possible fossil gibbon is only about 7 million years old — so we are missing most of the history,” Alba said. “We have a large gap in the record.” Unfortunately there are relatively few specimens that could be used to fill in the gaps and narrow down the possibilities, the scientists said.

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