Europe the birthplace of humanity, say scientists

Human beings split from the great apes several thousand years earlier than usual. That debate has focused on fossils from two potential hominid lines dating to between about 7 million and 6 million years ago, Sahelanthropus and Orrorin.

"Ever since Darwin conventional wisdom is that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans lived in Africa".

New research in the scientific journal PLOS ONE has further indicated that the split of the human lineage occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean and not - as customarily assumed - in Africa.

In a new study, researchers re-analysed Graecopithecus freybergi - a little-known species of dubious taxonomy originally described from a lower jaw bone fossil found in 1944 in Greece.

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"We were surprised by our results, as pre-humans were previously known only from sub-Saharan Africa", said co-author Jochen Fuss, a researcher at the University of Tubingen. An isolated Graecopithecus tooth from Bulgaria, an upper second premolar, dates to approximately 7.24 million years ago, the scientists say.

The fossils, including jaws and teeth, belong to Graecopithecus freybergi. Among several similarities of Graecopithecus teeth to those of early hominids, partial fusion of the second premolar root stands out, the researchers say.

Other experts on human prehistory disagree, pointing to extensive fossil evidence that hominins, meaning non-ape humans and their ancestors, originated in Africa and migrated north.

David Begun is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada. The researchers claim that the Eastern Mediterranean could "just as likely" be the location of ape and human diversification, as well as human ancestor origins, as tropical Africa.

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Scientists are very adamant in highlighting that this does not mean that Homo Sapiens, our species, did not in fact first appeared in Africa 200,000 years ago.

There are also hints from the jaw that Graecopithecus had relatively small canines - another hominin trait.

"I really appreciate having a detailed analysis of the Graecopithecus jaw - the only fossil of its genus so far", said Richard Potts, a paleoanthropologist who directs the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program. "Instead of ending up with a nice clean line from an apelike creature, a chimpanzee-like creature", says Dr. Wells, a U.C. Berkeley-trained embryologist, "each discovery complicates matters even more than they were complicated before".

Begun and colleagues used a special CT scanning device to produce 3-D versions of Graecopithecus teeth, including roots hidden by the jawbone. The "near consensus", Kelley said in an email, is that "the hominin lineage arose in Africa".

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"Graecopithecus is not an ape. Therefore, like humans, he has wide molars and thick enamel". Some of the earliest hominins didn't have these fused tooth roots, whereas some of the later hominins did, he said. The authors of the new studies suggest that this loose tooth could have come from another member of the same species.

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