The birthplace of the human race may be Mediterranean Europe and not Africa, a controversial new discovery suggests.
Scientists base the claim on an analysis of two very ancient fossils, a tooth and lower jawbone, unearthed in Bulgaria and Greece.
Evidence indicates that the ape-like creature they belonged to was the oldest pre-human known, dating back as far as 7.2 million years.
Graecopithecus freybergi is said to be several hundred thousand years older than the most ancient potential human ancestor discovered in Africa, Sahelanthropus, from Chad.
The implication is that humans split from their ape cousins not in Africa, as has been widely assumed, but Europe.
“We were surprised by our results, as pre-humans were previously known only from sub-Saharan Africa,” PhD student Jochen Fuss, a member of the international research team from the University of Tubingen in Germany, said.
For more than 40 years, the “cradle of humanity” has been firmly located in East Africa, where hundreds of fossils of humans and pre-humans were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Graecopithecus fossils, described in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, were found to have dental traits seen in modern humans, early humans and pre-humans, but not great apes.
CT scans were used to visualise the internal structure of the tooth and jawbone.
“While great apes typically have two or three separate and diverging roots, the roots of Graecopithecus converge and are partially fused – a feature that is characteristic of modern humans, early humans and several pre-humans including Ardipithecus and Australopithecus,” lead researcher Professor Madelaine Bohme, also from the University of Tubingen, said.
The lower jaw, nicknamed El Graeco by the scientists, had additional dental features suggesting a pre-human lineage.
Both the Greek and Bulgarian fossils were roughly 7.2 million years old, dating them to a time when the Mediterranean region was covered in Africa-like savannah grassland and home to giraffes, gazelles, and rhinos.