A researcher has discovered a well-preserved skull that had once belonged to an infant from a non-extinct ape species. This species is said to have been a common ancestor shared by humans and apes, while the skull itself is the most complete of any extinct ape skull ever uncovered. The infant would have been under two years old at the time of death, and it spent about 13 million years buried before being discovered.
The discovery, which happened in Kenya, is a monumental one, helping shed light on the evolution of modern humans and apes. Not only is the skull nearly fully intact, it is so well preserved that researchers are able to view the deceased infant’s brain impression within the skull. The fossil belongs to the ape species known as Nyanzapithecus alesi, and it has revealed, among other things, a brain volume about double that of Old World monkeys from the era.
In addition to featuring the brain impression, this fossil also still features the deceased infants’ teeth, which hadn’t yet broken through the gum line at the time of death. It isn’t known how the ape died, but its body was so well preserved thanks to a large blank of volcanic dust and ashes that covered the corpse. This is the second ever Miocene era ape fossil to be discovered with an intact neurocranium, helping shed light on a largely mysterious point in human evolution.
The discovery almost didn’t happen, according to an account given to National Geographic, one of the crew members working at the dig site in Kenya stepped aside to smoke a cigarette, and while away from everyone else, he noticed a boney protrusion in the dirt that he thought, at first, was the head of an elephant femur. It was only after some inspections began that the crew realized it was a rare, well-preserved ape skull.
Since being unearthed, the ape skull has undergone x-rays and 3D reconstruction, something that gave researchers a look at the teeth and helped determine which species it belonged to. As it turned out, the group from which the skull originated is a common ancestor for humans and great apes, as well as gibbons. Additional research on the skull is ongoing.