Beijing: A six-million-year-old fossilised cranium of a juvenile ape has been unearthed in China in a rare find that has paleontologists hoping it may help unravel the mystery of human origins.
The remains found in southwest China's Yunnan Province is only the second recovered cranium belonging to a juvenile ape inhabiting Eurasia in the Miocene epoch that dates back to 23 to five million years ago, Xinhua quoted Ji Xueping, a researcher who led the study, as saying in a news conference Thursday.
"The skull boasts great significance in research about our ancestors, as the time when the primate lived was close to that of the first humans, estimated between seven million to five million years ago," said Ji.
"Africa has found a number of fossils of ancient primates of that age, but such finds are scarce in Asia. From this perspective, the discovery is quite important," said Lu Qingwu, a professor with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.
A detailed description of the find was published in the Chinese Sciences Bulletin last month, nearly four years after Ji and his fellows found it.
The age of the fossil ape, a member of the genus Lufengpithecus, was identified as between 6.2-6.1 million years ago in the late Miocene, the youngest among all ancient primates previously detected in Yunnan.
The well-preserved cranium that has maintained most of the facial skeleton is relatively complete and largely undistorted, providing valuable information about the morphology and growth of Lufengpithecus.
"The study shows the primate bears some features that are common with humans. A significant example is that the width of its eye socket is longer than the height, just like us," said Lu.
Although the new find suggests its connection with the first humans in terms of timing and morphology, Ji noted, "We still lack adequate fossil evidence to clarify its relationship with early hominins."
The mainstream view is that human ancestors originated in Africa.
"In recent years, some scholars proposed the theory that Asia, rather than Africa, is the cradle of human ancestry based on a series of recent finds. Apparently there's a lot more work ahead to explore such possibility," said Lu.
Lufengpithecus is a collective name for the remains of fossil apes recovered in Kaiyuan, Lufeng, Yuanmou and Zhaotong in Yunnan since the 1950s. The remains date back between 11 million and seven million years ago, most crushed and badly deformed.
The genus survived in Yunnan while the apes living in other parts of Eurasia in the late Miocene became extinct due to climate deterioration, according to Ji.
In the late Miocene epoch, the hot and humid climate as well as lush tropical and subtropical forests in today's southwest China might provide an environment for human origins and evolution, said Ji.
"Therefore, Yunnan is a possible site to unravel the mystery," he said