Researchers claim they have uncovered evidence of ancient hominin-like creatures comparable to Australopithecus. Even more intriguingly, they were discovered not in East Africa as would be expected, but in Germany instead. The two teeth discovered date to 9.7 million years ago – which, if proved correct, would rewrite our origins, although there are some serious doubts that need to be cleared first.
If these fossils are proven to be that of animals similar to the famous bipedal Australopithecus from East Africa – and that is a big if – then it could have some seriously profound implications for the story of human evolution.
“I don't want to over-dramatize it, but I would hypothesize that we shall have to start rewriting the history of mankind after today,” Herbert Lutz, director of the Natural History Museum in Mainz, told local media this week as he revealed the discovery. The paper is currently in pre-print. “This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery.”
This would be an astonishing find not only because there have never been any comparable early hominins like this found in Europe before, but also because if the dating is correct, then the species was knocking around some 6 million years before the famous Lucy was laid to rest in Ethiopia. The current estimate for the last common ancestor between chimps and humans ranges from around 10 million to 7 million years ago, although one recent study suggests that it might have been as long at 13 million years ago.
If this older figure is correct, then the dating of these hominin-like teeth would fit in with that. Yet there are other factors to take into consideration. Only earlier this year, researchers announced they had discovered what they believed to be fossil evidence of the last common ancestor between chimps and humans, which put the divergence at around 7.2 million years ago.
What is more interesting in this scenario, however, is that these fossils were discovered in Eastern Europe. This lines up nicely with the recent findings from Germany date-wise, but only if they are not hominin in origin. It is not unusual to find evidence of primates across Europe, and the author’s even note in their paper that while the size and dimensions of the newly discovered teeth are within those known for various Australopithecus species, they also fall within the range for female chimps, too.
If this is the case, then the 9.7-million-year-old teeth could simply be an as-yet unknown species of ape that was once living in the forests of ancient Germany. Of course, it could also turn out that the researchers are indeed correct with their initial understandings and this discovery instead completely rewrites what we thought we knew about human evolution. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.