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When Earth Really Was the Planet of the Apes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Miocene apes

As movie theaters across the U.S. prepare to welcome throngs of bipedal primates to screenings of Rise of the Planet of the Apes this weekend, it seems appropriate to reflect on a time in Earth’s history when nonhuman apes actually did reign supreme. It’s hard to imagine, because so few ape species exist today and all are imperiled. But during the Miocene epoch, between roughly 23 million and 5 million years ago, the planet harbored as many as 100 ape species. There were tiny apes (think housecat-size) and giant apes, leaf-eating apes and nut-eating apes, apes that walked on all fours and apes that swung from branch to branch. And they roamed throughout the Old World from France to China, Kenya to Namibia.

In 2003, paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto wrote an article for Scientific American on the apes of the Miocene. It’s a fascinating story. And we commissioned portraits of some of the apes from paleoartist extraordinaire John Gurche to illustrate it (above). Begun makes the case that the taxonomic group that encompasses great apes and humans, the hominids, originated in Eurasia, because most of the known fossils of great apes have come from Eurasia. Specifically, he posits that either an ape called Dryopithecus or one dubbed Ouranopithecus (center and far right, respectively) was the ancestor of African apes and humans.

Begun’s theory is controversial. Other researchers favor an African origin for the group, a model that has gained support from discoveries in recent years of fossils of large-bodied Miocene apes in Africa, such as the 10 million-year-old Chororapithecus from Ethiopia and its Kenyan contemporary Nakalipithecus. But there’s still not much to go on.

And the fossil record of African great apes doesn’t get better after the Miocene. But the human fossil record sure does. In fact, the human fossil record is pretty darn good. It’s strange to think that we know so much about human evolution yet so little about that of our closest living cousins. Chororapithecus might be a gorilla forebear, as might a 9.5 million-year-old creature from Kenya called Samburupithecus. But aside from those tentative links and three fossil chimp teeth from Kenya that are around half a million years old, scientists have no other fossils to document the rise of the modern African apes. And clues may continue to prove elusive: the forested environments that apes tend to inhabit are generally not conducive to fossil preservation. Until more fossils come to light, the story of exactly how the planet of the apes became the planet of the humans remains very much incomplete.





Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mfhawkes 2:34 pm 08/5/2011

    I appreciate that you’re trying to make a topical pop-culture reference as a tie-in to your content, so please take my bitter pedantry with a pinch of salt. However. Is it accurate to say that the Earth “really was the Planet of the Apes” just because there were up to 100 ape species? There are currently around 100 extant species of free-tailed bats, should we now call the Earth the Planet of the Free-Tailed Bats? Regardless, if the title is awarded by species number per ~Family I don’t think any mammal has ever come close.

    I feel bad complaining, but thinking about life in terms of the Great Chain of Being is still rife within the public consciousness and it doesn’t help matters when scientific outlets are talking in the same way. It just seems like you’re framing humans and our immediate ancestors as sitting at the top of an evolutionary ladder rather than as branches on an evolutionary tree. As if our recent ancestors somehow ran the show as the pinnacle of creation, rather than just being another collection of species trying to get by.

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  2. 2. candide 7:30 pm 08/5/2011

    Planet of the Ants or Planet of the bacteria?!?

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  3. 3. msadesign 7:04 am 08/6/2011

    mfhawkes? Let’s just have some fun with this, OK? in a science-y sort of way? :-)

    And 100 different apes? Who knew? (I didn’t). Wouldn’t kitty have a lovely time with one of those little guys?!

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 8:18 am 08/6/2011

    I am glad you said non-human apes, because humans are not apes and apes are not human; they never were and they never will be, and no matter how many times you say they are or how many different ways you say it, that will not make it so.

    The closest animal to the ape that looked somewhat like a human, before the human actually came on the scene, was the Neanderthal, and all records indicate that the modern human looks almost exactly like that first human after we found healthy food on this planet. 65 thousand years, when they found the first human skeleton that the DNA actually match to modern human, is not enough time for a complex species like animals to evolve to another species. You cannot go to bed one night as one species and wake up the next morning as another new species. It does not work like that and it never did work like that. In the animal kingdom, no matter how much they resemble each other; one species cannot mate with another species and produce an offspring. In the scheme of things, one species cannot mate with another species, splice into that species DNA and become part of that species, or dominate that species. If it could, then we all would look alike and there would be just one species on this planet. A mosquito can inject another species DNA into you and it can stay there and be passed down from one generation to another, but that DNA will never dominate your DNA and will never morph you into another species.

    If you cannot find any modern human skeletons after that 65 thousand year period, then humans did not exist before that period. And just because you find a Neanderthal skeleton beside a human skeleton does not mean they were cohabitants.

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  5. 5. craighyatt 12:40 am 08/8/2011

    “…one species cannot mate with another and produce an offspring.”

    I think there are many examples of interspecies mating that produce hybrids, for example mules, ligers, wholphins, yakows, etc.

    I think I also remember reading fairly recently that Neanderthals and humans may have interbred and produced hybrids.

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  6. 6. RHABERLAND 5:50 am 08/9/2011

    There is very likely lack of understanding of geological evolution during the time 20-M to 5 M-years ago.
    Within this time interval the Mediterranean Sea was nearly “dry” one to maybe 4 times, sea-level down 4000m!
    This is a gigantic heat-trap (death valley and dead sea are microscopic in cpmparison!).
    The big rivers: Nile, Kongo, Sambesi were still flowing but the rest of the country mostly dry and inhabitable.
    (drillling in the Nile delta revealed the huge canyons where the Nile water descended 4000m!)
    So very likely the apes had to search for high mountains to survive, the pavians to the savannahs and the pre-humans had only the shores of the great african lakes.
    Descending from the trees was not possible as beneath a lion (or other beasts) waited for good food.
    Competing with pavians was not possible as pre-humans had no weapons at all but pavians had big teeth that are formidable weapons fitted to protect against lions!
    So searching the shorelines gave food and protection, no cat nor ape wants to be wet.
    And the canines were too small to attack against upright pre-humans in 1m deep water.
    There we learned permanent upright walking and first handling of simple tools.
    From that time originates man’s love for long-legged woman – these had a better chance of survival.
    But around 4 Myears ago we were driven from this paradise by the re-flooding of the mediterranean and related switching of the climate to the cold.
    Brain was still small 400 ccm around, but upright walking persisted and may be very early language too.
    2 M-years later a huge tsunami – triggered by a meteoritic impact – splashed a big amount of seawater into the african lakes. We know from the few fishes that had a high rise and an uncomfortable landing but some survived and gave rise to a big variety of new species since. Today mitochondrial analysis shows that there has been one species only around 2 Myears ago!
    (This was the same impact that drowned the big birds that lived in southern Texas and had lost flight-capabilities.)
    This seawater in the lakes triggered marine life in these lakes – easy prey to collect: mussles, snails, crabs maybe some fish. All a best source of protein and fat (abundant omega3!!! to feed the growing brain) nowhere available in the savannahs or woodlands. And enough iodine and selenium to boost the capabilities of our thyroid gland – necessary for high intensity action.
    From then on our ancestors lived again at the lakesides, developed the big brain and the related changes in embryonic development and birth. Language added, first effective (?) weapons added made survival more comfortable.
    (see: Steven Cunnane: Survival of the fattest).

    So if searching for fossils is focused on these distinct habitats there may be a much better success.

    Unfortunately the banks of the big rivers where these met the seas are under thick layers of sediment and very likely the shorelines of the big lakes in Africa have changed a lot too.

    Tie the puzzle together to a big insight, these facts above are mostly missing and thus darkening our insights.

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