Ape fossil found in China may shed light on human origin

Ape fossil found in China may shed light on human origin

A six-million-year-old fossilised cranium of a juvenile ape has been unearthed in southwest China and paleontologists believe that it may help unravel the mystery of human origin and its Asian links.

This is only the second recovered cranium belonging to a juvenile ape inhabiting Eurasia in the Miocene, Ji Xueping, a researcher who led the study, said.

"The skull has great significance in research on our ancestors, as the time when the primate lived was close to that of the first humans, estimated at between 7 million to 5 million years ago," Ji from the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology was quoted by the state-run Xinhua news agency as saying.

"In Africa, a number of fossils of ancient primates of that age have been found, but such finds are scarce in Asia. From this perspective, the discovery is quite important," Lu Qingwu, a professor with Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences said.

The new find suggests a connection with the first humans in terms of timing and morphology.

But Ji noted, "We still lack adequate fossil evidence to clarify its relationship with early hominins."    

A detailed description of the fossil was published in the "Chinese Sciences Bulletin" recently, four years after Ji and colleagues found it in a pit owned by a brick factory in Shuitangba Zhaotong city.

The age of the fossil ape, a member of the genus Lufengpithecus, was identified as between 6.2 to 6.1 million years ago, late in the Miocene epoch, which extended from about 23 million years ago to around 5.3 million years ago.

The cranium has maintained most of the facial skeleton and is largely undistorted, providing valuable information about the morphology of Lufengpithecus, said the study.

"The study shows the primate bears some features in common with humans. An example is that the width of its eye socket is longer than the height, just like us," Lu said.