BERLIN — The remains of an ancient ape found in a Bavarian clay pit suggest humans’ ancestors began standing upright millions of years earlier than previously thought, scientists said Wednesday.
An international team of researchers says the fossilized partial skeleton of a male ape that lived almost 12 million years ago in the humid forests of what is now southern Germany bears a striking resemblance to modern human bones. In a paper published by the journal Nature, they concluded that the previously unknown species — named Danuvius guggenmosi — could walk on two legs but also climb like an ape.
The findings “raise fundamental questions about our previous understanding of the evolution of the great apes and humans,” said Madelaine Boehme of the University of Tuebingen, Germany, who led the research.
The question of when apes evolved bipedal motion has fascinated scientists since Charles Darwin first argued they were the ancestors of humans. Previous fossil records of apes with an upright gait — found in Crete and Kenya — dated only as far back as 6 million years ago.
Boehme, along with researchers from Bulgaria, Germany, Canada and the United States, examined more than 15,000 bones recovered from a trove of archaeological remains known as the Hammerschmiede, or Hammer Smithy, about 44 miles west of the Germany city of Munich.
Among the remains they were able to piece together were primate fossils belonging to four individuals that lived 11.62 million years ago. The most complete, an adult male, likely stood about 3 feet, 4 inches, weighed 68 pounds and looked similar to modern-day bonobos, a species of chimpanzee.
“It was astonishing for us to realize how similar certain bones are to humans, as opposed to great apes,” Boehme said.