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  • If you happened to visit the swampy forests of what's now Italy about 7 million years

  • ago, you might have crossed paths with a very strange ape.

  • It had a small brain - less than half the size of a modern chimp's - and it also had

  • a puzzling combination of other features.

  • It had teeth with sharp cusps, adapted for slicing through fibrous plants -- much more

  • like we see in some of today's Old World monkeys than in living apes.

  • And it had well-developed chewing muscles and a robust jawbone, suggesting that it ate

  • leaves almost exclusively, unlike its other ape cousins, which mostly lived on fruit.

  • But attached to that small skull with monkey-like teeth was a body that was much more ape-like.

  • It had a short lower back and a broad torso, like living apes do, with arms that were long

  • compared to its legs.

  • And it had long, curved fingers and toes, also like those of modern apes.

  • Now, we know a lot about this weird European ape, because anthropologists have found many

  • fossils of it, including a relatively complete one in a coal mine in Tuscany in the 1950s.

  • It was given the delicious-sounding name of Oreopithecus, or hill ape.

  • And despite some of its more monkey-like features, experts agree that it was a hominoid -- a

  • member of the superfamily that includes all living and fossil apes.

  • Which is interesting, and kinda strange.

  • Because, not only did Oreopithecus have an odd combination of features, it was also just

  • one of around fifteen species of apes whose fossils have been found throughout Europe.

  • And, I don't know if you've noticed but, Europe isn't home to any of our ape cousins

  • today.

  • And we know that hominoids didn't originate on that continent.

  • So, what was Oreopithecus doing in the forests of Miocene Italy?

  • How and why did this ape wind up in Europe?

  • And, why aren't there wild apes in Europe today?

  • Today, our closest evolutionary relatives, the apes, live only in small pockets of Africa

  • and Asia.

  • But back in the Miocene epoch, between about 23 million and 5 million years ago, apes occupied

  • all of Europe.

  • We find their fossils from Georgia and Turkey in the east, to Spain in the west, and almost

  • everywhere in between, including Hungary, Italy, and France.

  • Some we know only from teeth and jawbones, while others we have relatively complete skeletons

  • of, like Oreopithecus.

  • And we know that they're apes, rather than monkeys, because they share many skeletal

  • traits with living apes, like having broad, shallow torsos; shoulder blades that are positioned

  • on the back of the rib cage rather than on the sides; and they don't have tails.

  • They've also got what are known as Y-5 molars, a classic hominoid dental trait.

  • That means they -- including you -- have lower molars with five cusps on them, and the grooves

  • in-between form a Y-shape.

  • So, what allowed these apes to make it to Europe in the first place?

  • Well, our earliest ape-like ancestors had already evolved and diversified throughout

  • the woodlands and tropical forests of Africa back in the early Miocene, about 20 million

  • years ago.

  • We know this because we've found lots of their fossils at sites that date back to this

  • time, in Kenya and Uganda.

  • For example, there are Proconsul and Ekembo.

  • They both share some of the same basic features in their teeth and skulls with later hominoids,

  • and they probably didn't have tails.

  • But they still clambered around on all fours in the trees, more like monkeys.

  • And there was Morotopithecus, which also had those same uniquely hominoid features.

  • But based on the bones in its lower back and legs, it probably held its torso more upright

  • and climbed more like living apes do.

  • But things started to change for these primates starting about 17 million years ago.

  • That's when Africa's climate started to become drier, and experience more seasonal

  • variation.

  • Over time, the environment became less tropical, and more open and grassy.

  • This left early hominoids with fewer of their preferred foods, like fruits, and more lower-quality

  • foods, like leaves, seeds, and bark.

  • But at the same time, up in Eurasia, the climate was becoming warmer and more forested.

  • So while Africa was getting drier, Europe was becoming more hospitable to these early

  • apes and other subtropical and tropical mammals.

  • Which is why it's around this time, about 16 million years ago, that we see hominoids

  • first start to appear in Eurasia.

  • The first pioneer in Eurasia that we know about was called Griphopithecus.

  • It's found at sites in Turkey, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany, from 16.5 to 16 million

  • years ago.

  • But it was only the first of many.

  • Once hominoids made it into the warm, humid forests of Europe, they diversified and spread

  • across across the continent.

  • So, soon after, in France, we find Dryopithecus fontani from 12.5 to 11 million years ago.

  • It was actually the first of the European apes to be discovered, named by a French paleontologist

  • in 1856.

  • And in northeastern Hungary, about 10 million years ago, Rudapithecus reigned.

  • It lived in forests that were swampy or maybe flooded seasonally, and its brain about as

  • big as a chimp's.

  • Then, in Northern Spain alone, there were five different genera of apes, ranging in

  • size from Pierolapithecus at about 30 kilograms to tiny Pliobates at just four and a half

  • kilos.

  • But as the apes of Europe were enjoying their heyday, big changes were afoot.

  • And bybig” I mean, like, the size of the Himalayas.

  • Starting about 50 million years ago, in far-off Southern Asia, the Indian Plate of the Earth's

  • crust had begun to crush into the Eurasian plate, slowly forming the massive Himalayas.

  • By about 10 million years ago, this slow-motion collision started to lift these giant mountains

  • even higher, and faster.

  • And these new mountains changed climate patterns all over the world.

  • In Europe, this meant that the once subtropical forests that apes had conquered began to transition

  • into cooler, more seasonal, deciduous woodlands.

  • Many of Europe's apes found themselves unable to adapt to the loss of their subtropical

  • forests, and began to go extinct, around 9.6 million years ago.

  • Rudapithecus in Hungary and the many apes of Spain were likely among the casualties.

  • And as the cooling and drying trend continued, forests became more fragmented and grasslands

  • began to spread.

  • The few apes that survived to this point were either highly specialized or isolated in pockets

  • of suitable habitats, or both.

  • For example, Ouranopithecus from northern Greece seemed to have adapted to a more open,

  • grassy, and shrubby landscape with fewer trees.

  • The wear on its teeth suggests that it ate roots, tubers, and other hard, abrasive foods.

  • And some anthropologists have actually suggested that, based on its teeth, Ouranopithecus might

  • have been a hominin, a member of that group of apes that includes us and all of our extinct

  • relatives that existed after our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos.

  • And the same has been suggested about another European ape: Graecopithecus

  • It's only known from a partial jawbone found in Greece and a single upper premolar from

  • Bulgaria.

  • And some scientists have proposed that it, too, has some traits that are unique to hominins,

  • namely in the roots of two of its teeth.

  • But, as with Ouranopithecus, this claim is very controversial, mainly because we have

  • many more -- and more complete -- fossils of hominins from Africa, which is generally

  • agreed to be where hominins originated.

  • In any case, the final holdout among Europe's apes was our old friend Oreopithecus.

  • It lived in forests that were cooler and wetter than the habitats of the other European apes,

  • which may have helped it adapt to the changing climate conditions that had doomed its contemporaries.

  • And the fact that it was so well adapted to its isolated environment might also explain

  • why it had those features that seemed more monkey-like than ape-like.

  • Oreopithecus lived long after the split between monkeys and apes, but over time it evolved

  • those teeth with sharp cusps, like those found in some monkeys, which were perfect for eating

  • leaves -- yet another example of convergent evolution in action.

  • Oreopithecus survived in isolated forests until about 6 or 7 million years ago, when

  • the chunk of Italy that it lived on - which was an island at the time - finally collided

  • with the rest of the Italian peninsula, which of course changed its habitat considerably.

  • By 6 million years ago, the reign of the apes in Europe was over.

  • But was that it?

  • What was their legacy, for other primates and for us?

  • Well, like all apes, the apes of Europe were hominoids, so they are part of our superfamily.

  • But whether they're distant cousins or direct ancestors depends on who you ask.

  • Most anthropologists agree that our earliest ape-like ancestors -- early hominoids like

  • Proconsul and Ekembo -- evolved in Africa.

  • But they disagree about what happened next.

  • Some experts think the European apes are just an interesting side-branch of our family tree,

  • and that the hominoids that eventually evolved into us remained in Africa, and evolved there

  • Their reasoning is that the earliest ape-like primates are found in Africa, as are our earliest

  • definitive hominin ancestors, and our closest living ape cousins.

  • But the problem is, we haven't found conclusive fossil evidence of those apes that gave rise

  • to the hominins.

  • These were the members of another subfamily, the Homininae, which includes all of the living

  • African apes as well as humans.

  • But we have yet to find fossils in Africa of the last common ancestors that gorillas,

  • chimps, and humans all share.

  • There are some potential candidates, but their fossils are fragmentary and isolated.

  • And the fact that we haven't found them might just be an accident of geology.

  • After all, only some locations preserve fossils, and only some locations have been excavated.

  • But others propose that one of these European ape species might have returned to Africa

  • and given rise to our lineage.

  • Advocates of this hypothesis point, as evidence, to several features of the skull and teeth

  • that Eurasian apes share with later hominids.

  • Needless to say, there are lots of gaps in our understanding of human evolution, and

  • this question -- about when, where and exactly how the hominoids gave rise to hominins -- is

  • one of them.

  • But what we do know is that strange apes like Oreopithecus were just part of an incredible

  • radiation of apes that took place during the Miocene epoch.

  • And its remains, found in the fossil forests of Italy, remind us of that time when

  • apes, for a brief span of geologic time, conquered the European continent.

  • Thanks for joining me today, and special thanks to our Eontologists, Jake Hart, Jon Ivy, John

  • Davison Ng and let's not forget STEVE!

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  • Now, if you're interested in the origins of things, then you should definitely check

  • out The Origin of Everything, a show that explores the history of how our cultural world

  • came to be, like why so many religions have rules about head coverings, and what fake

  • conspiracy theories can tell us about our very real feelings about invasions, government

  • and war.

  • Check out the link in the description!

  • And so tell me: what do you want to learn about?

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If you happened to visit the swampy forests of what's now Italy about 7 million years

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When Apes Conquered Europe

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/01
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