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Petite primate fossil could upend ideas about ape evolution

11.6-million-year-old fossil suggests a gibbonlike creature was modern apes’ common ancestor

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2:00pm, October 29, 2015
ape reconstruction

LITTLE BIG APE  A reconstruction of a fossil primate’s 11.6-million-year-old skull, shown from the side and the front, reveals a mix of apelike and monkeylike features. This creature, depicted at right, may have been a surprisingly small ancestor of all modern apes.

An ancient primate’s partial skeleton, discovered in northeastern Spain, is poised to downsize ape evolution in a big way.

This 11.6-million-year-old fossil find, nicknamed Laia by its discoverers, represents the first evidence that present-day African apes descended from a relatively small, somewhat gibbonlike common ancestor — not large-bodied African primates as previously thought, scientists report in the Oct. 30 Science. If that scenario holds up, Laia’s discovery also shows for the first time that ancient, small-bodied apes moved from Africa to Europe, says a team led by paleontologist David Alba of Catalan Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona.

Based on analysis of more than 300 teeth, skull and lower-body measurements, Alba and colleagues assign the partial skeleton to a new genus and species of ancient ape, Pliobates cataloniae.

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