News broke that the discovery of 9.7 million-year-old fossilized primate teeth could apparently “rewrite human history”. However, those pronouncements may be getting ahead of themselves.
Photo by Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz
According to a recently published study, the two teeth don’t look like the teeth of any other known species in Europe and Asia. The teeth, identified as a canine and a molar, were said to resemble the teeth belonging to Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old primate related to humans. According to Herbert Lutz, head of the research team that discovered the fossilized teeth, "They are clearly ape teeth. Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim.”
Lutz and his team were so surprised by the discovery that they held off on announcing it. Recently, they published their study online. Several news outlets have since touted the discovery as something that can shake up what we know about the history of our species, but other scientists now say that these sentiments may be, at the least, premature.
According to the paper, the discovery may point to a great ape species that we don’t know about. This supposed species would have had human-like teeth millions of years before ape species in Africa did. While these claims have prompted many to call for a reexamination of human evolutionary history, other scientists are not so sure.
One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the investigation into the teeth is still ongoing. Another thing to consider is that the paper wasn’t actually published in a scientific journal, which means that the findings have not yet undergone peer review.
Also, experts warn against confusing humans--Homo sapiens--with hominoids, a group that includes humans, our extinct relatives, and other hominins, which include gorillas and chimpanzees. Strong fossil and genetic evidence also pinpoints Africa as the place of origin of Homo sapiens. Modern humans left Africa between 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, and no earlier than 120,000 years ago. The fossilized teeth are about a hundred times older than this. Thus, if there’s anything that the teeth can contribute to the existing body of knowledge, it clarifies how hominoids lived and evolved.
However, there are also some scientists who doubt that the teeth come from a close human relative. “I think this is much ado about nothing,” paleoanthropologist Bence Viola, who is also an expert on the teeth of extinct human relatives, tells National Geographic. “The second tooth (the molar), which they say clearly comes from the same individual, is absolutely not a hominin, [and] I would say also not a hominoid.”
Many experts think that the molar in particular belonged to a pliopithecoid species, a distant human relative that lived in Europe and Asia seven to 17 million years ago. This species is so distant from humans that we’re likely to be more closely related to baboons than this pliopithecoid species.
Other experts also cast doubt on whether the canine is even actually a canine. “It has a funny break that makes it look a bit like a canine, but it is definitely not a canine, nor is it [from] a primate,” paleoanthropologist David Begun also told National Geographic. According to Begun, the canine actually looked more like it belonged to a ruminant, like a cow or sheep.
However, as Lutz himself cautioned, the investigation is still ongoing. It’s too early to say how much of an impact this discovery will have on what we know of our evolutionary history. Of course, it’s also too early to dismiss the findings altogether.
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