"We discovered that Orrorin's femur is surprisingly 'intermediate' in both age and anatomy between quadrupedal Miocene apes and bipedal early human ancestors," says Sergio Almécija. Above, the femur of Orrorin tugenensis.
An analysis of the femur of one of the oldest human ancestors reveals that the six-million-year-old “Millenium Man” was bipedal but lived in the trees.
The research, published in Nature Communications http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2013/131203/ncomms3888/full/ncomms3888.html , could provide additional insight to the origins of human bipedalism.
In the paper, lead investigator Sergio Almécija, a research instructor from the department of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, and co-authors clarify and contextualize the place of Orrorin tugenensis, or Millenium Man, in human and ape evolution.
The team completed 3D geometric morphometric analyses on the shape and characteristics of the femur of Orrorin, which reveals its morphology to be an “intermediate” between fossil apes and later human ancestors (hominins).
The findings open a new avenue in bipedal evolution research as they illustrate that hominins and living apes evolved in different directions from fossil apes from the Miocene (23 to 5 million years ago).
Millenium Man is a fossil from East Africa and considered to be one of the best candidate species for what may be called the earliest hominins
. However, some scientists have questions its hominin status.
Miocene apes are fossil relatives of the ape-human lineage with body shapes somewhere in between living monkeys and apes. Most Miocene apes walked on their fours in the trees instead of suspending themselves below branches.
According to Almécija, the study for the first time compared the six-million-year-old Millenium Man femur (called BAR 1002’00) using state-of-the-art morphometric techniques to not only other available hominin fossils but also great apes, hylobatids (i.e., gibbons and siamangs), and most importantly to fossil apes that lived in the Miocene. The analysis included more than 400 specimens.
“We discovered that Orrorin’s femur is surprisingly ‘intermediate’ in both age and anatomy between quadrupedal Miocene apes and bipedal early human ancestors,” says Almécija.
“Our paper provides quantitative results of the Orrorin femur as a unique mosaic and stresses the need to incorporate fossil apes into future analyses and discussions dealing with the evolution of human bipedalism, an investigation that should stop considering chimpanzees as default living ‘starting point’ models.”
A similar take-home message was derived from the extensive analyses of the postcranial skeleton of the 4.4 million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus from Ethiopia.
Almécija explains that because chimpanzees are our closest living relatives in terms of molecular data, a majority of paleoanthropologists presume that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans looked exactly like a chimpanzee.
For that reason, Miocene apes have been largely ignored in the human origins scientific literature. Although chimpanzees and other great apes can still represent good ancestral models for other anatomical regions, this new study proves that it is not the case of the proximal femur.
Based on the 3D geometric morphometric analyses, the Orrorin femur is most similar overall to Miocene ape Proconsul nyanzae but also closely linked to Australopithecus afarensis (i.e., “Lucy”).
Co-author William Jungers, teaching professsor and chair of the department of anatomical sciences, emphasizes that the team’s reconstruction and findings also reveal that some Miocene apes may represent a more appropriate model for the ancestral morphology from which hominins evolved than do existing great apes and particularly the chimpanzee.
“Living apes have long and independent evolutionary histories of their own, and their modern anatomies should not be assumed to represent the ancestral condition for our human lineage,” explains Jungers. “But we need a better understanding of the paleobiology of Miocene apes in order to properly inform us as to how and when walking on two legs became part of our heritage.”
The research leading to the findings was supported in part by the Fulbright Commission and the Generalitat de Catalunya of Spain, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.