Scientists reconstruct the skull of a 12-million-year-old monkey

A team of paleoanthropologists has assembled the only known skull of the extinct great ape Pierolapithecus catalaunicusand revealed what the monkey’s face looked like. Reconstruction allows them to place Pierolapithecus on the hominid family tree and improves our understanding of how apes moved around Spain around 12 million years ago.

Pierolapithecus Was first described in 2004when a partial skeleton and facial skull were found in a landfill on the outskirts of Barcelona, ​​Spain. The specimen is over 12 million years old and was found along with two other extinct monkey genera: Dryopithecus And Anoiapithecus. According to the original team’s assessment – based on Pierolapithecus’ “primitive ape-like” features and its skeleton, which indicated that the monkey could assume an upright posture – the specimen was closely related to the last common ancestor of great apes and humans.

In the new research, the team scanned the fossil skull using CT to virtually reconstruct it and better compare the specimen to other known hominids. The research is published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Characteristics of the skull and teeth are extremely important in elucidating the evolutionary relationships of fossil species,” Kelsey Pugh, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and lead author of the study, said at a museum release. “Finding this material in conjunction with bones from the rest of the skeleton will not only give us the opportunity to accurately place the species in the hominid family tree, but also to learn more about the animal’s biology in terms of: for example, how it moved in its surroundings.”

The ability to maintain an upright posture suggests this PierolapithecusLike many other hominids, they could cling to branches and navigate through the canopy. This was already known, but the state of the fossilized skull made it difficult to understand taxonomically where the monkey was. After taking CT scans of the skull and virtually assembling it, the researchers were able to make a comparison Pierolapithecus to other known hominids.

“One of the persistent problems with studies of ape and human evolution is that the fossil record is fragmentary, and many specimens are incompletely preserved and distorted,” study co-author Ashley Hammond, a biological anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said in a museum publication. This makes it difficult to reach consensus on the evolutionary relationships of important fossil apes, which are essential to understanding ape and human evolution.”

This is what the team found out Pierolapithecus” had similarities in its general shape and size to the other extinct and extant great apes. Based on evolutionary modeling with the newly measured properties of the Pierolapithecus skull, the team determined some facial aspects of the last common ancestor of hominids. This ancestor, the team wrote, “differed in its overall form from all extant and fossil hominids and was similar to Pierolapithecus in many characteristics.”

Our last common ancestor remains elusive, but aspects of it are slowly being clarified thanks to newly found fossils and new methods of interrogating fossils that have already been discovered. The newly CT-scanned skull allows scientists to look – almost – in the face of this enigmatic member of our family tree.

More: The origin story of humanity is now even more complicated

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