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A new species of great ape from the late Miocene epoch in Ethiopia

Abstract

With the discovery of Ardipithecus, Orrorin and Sahelanthropus1,2,3,4,5,6,7, our knowledge of hominid evolution before the emergence of Pliocene species of Australopithecus8,9 has significantly increased, extending the hominid fossil record back to at least 6 million years (Myr) ago. However, because of the dearth of fossil hominoid remains in sub-Saharan Africa spanning the period 12–7 Myr ago, nothing is known of the actual timing and mode of divergence of the African ape and hominid lineages. Most genomic-based studies suggest a late divergence date—5–6 Myr ago and 6–8 Myr ago for the human–chimp and human–gorilla splits, respectively10,11,12,13,14—and some palaeontological and molecular analyses hypothesize a Eurasian origin of the African ape and hominid clade15,16. We report here the discovery and recognition of a new species of great ape, Chororapithecus abyssinicus, from the 10–10.5-Myr-old deposits of the Chorora Formation at the southern margin of the Afar rift. To the best of our knowledge, these are the first fossils of a large-bodied Miocene ape from the African continent north of Kenya. They exhibit a gorilla-sized dentition that combines distinct shearing crests with thick enamel on its ‘functional’ side cusps. Visualization of the enamel–dentine junction by micro-computed tomography reveals shearing crest features that partly resemble the modern gorilla condition. These features represent genetically based structural modifications probably associated with an initial adaptation to a comparatively fibrous diet. The relatively flat cuspal enamel–dentine junction and thick enamel, however, suggest a concurrent adaptation to hard and/or abrasive food items. The combined evidence suggests that Chororapithecus may be a basal member of the gorilla clade, and that the latter exhibited some amount of adaptive and phyletic diversity at around 10–11 Myr ago.

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Figure 1: Chororapithecus abyssinicus fossils and schematic stratigraphy.
Figure 2: Micro-CT-based morphological evaluations of the outer enamel surface and enamel–dentine junction.
Figure 3: Micro-CT-based evaluations of upper molar enamel thickness.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the National Science Foundation Revealing Hominid Origins Initiative (RHOI) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for financial support of field and laboratory research. We thank W. Amerga and K. Kairente for field work; A. Ademassu for supporting laboratory work; J.-R. Boisserie, M. Brunet, Y. Haile-Selassie, C. O. Lovejoy and T. White for observations and/or discussions; the staff of the Culture and Tourism Bureau Western Hararge Chiro Zone and the administration of the Mieso Woreda for fieldwork support; the Oromiya Culture and Toursim Bureau Addis Ababa for facilitation; and the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage and the National Museum of Ethiopia, Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia for permissions and support. We thank the following institutions and staff for access to comparative materials: National Museum of Ethiopia; National Museums of Kenya; Transvaal Museum, South Africa; Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren; Naturalis, Leiden; Cleveland Museum of Natural History; the University of California at Berkeley, Human Evolution Research Center; and the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Department of Zoology.

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Suwa, G., Kono, R., Katoh, S. et al. A new species of great ape from the late Miocene epoch in Ethiopia. Nature 448, 921–924 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature06113

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