Researchers Unearth Ape Skull In Yunnan Province, China
September 6, 2013

Researchers Unearth Ape Skull In Yunnan Province, China

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Researchers working at Shuitangba, a site in Yunnan Province, China, announced the discovery of a fossilized ape cranium that is highly unique due to the fact that it comes from a juvenile of the species and at a time when apes had become extinct in most of Eurasia.

"The fossils recovered from Shuitangba constitute one of the most important collections of late Miocene fossils brought to light in recent decades because they represent a snapshot from a critical transitional period in earth history,” said Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of a report on the discovery published in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin.

“The ape featured in the current paper typifies animals from the lush tropical forests that blanketed much of the world's subtropical and tropical latitudes during the Miocene epoch, while the monkey and some of the smaller mammals exemplify animals from the more seasonal environments of recent times,” Jablonski added.

Extending from 23 million to 5 million years ago, the Miocene epoch was essentially when our human ancestors split away from other primates.

“The preservation of the new cranium is excellent, with only minimal post-depositional distortion,” said Jay Kelley, from the Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC) at Arizona State University. “This is important because all previously discovered adult crania of the species to which it is assigned, Lufengpithecus lufengensis, were badly crushed and distorted during the fossilization process.”

“In living ape species, cranial anatomy in individuals at the same stage of development as the new fossil cranium already show a close resemblance to those of adults,” he added. “Therefore, the new cranium, despite being from a juvenile, gives researchers the best look at the cranial anatomy of Lufengpithecus lufengensis.”

“Partly because of where and when Lufengpithecus lived, it is considered by most to be in the lineage of the extant orangutan, now confined to Southeast Asia but known from the late Pleistocene of southern China as well,” Kelley said.

The researchers pointed out, however, that the fossilized cranium showed none of what are considered to be key analytic features of modern orangutan crania. Therefore, Lufengpithecus appears to belong to a late surviving lineage of Eurasian apes. The researchers said the survival of this lineage makes sense as southern China was less affected by climate change during the later Miocene that is believed to have caused the extinctions of many ape species throughout Eurasia.

The team said they hope to continue excavations at the site, which could result in finding well-preserved remains of adult individuals.

"In addition to the ape, we have recovered hundreds of specimens of other animals and plants," said study author Denise Su, a curator at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

"We are looking forward to going back to Shuitangba next year to continue fieldwork and, hopefully, find more specimens of not only the ape but other animals and plants that will tell us more about the environment," she added. "Given what we have recovered so far, Shuitangba has great potential to help us learn more about the environment in the latest part of the Miocene in southern China and the evolution of the plants and animals found there."