Newly discovered ape weighs in on human ancestry

A team of GW researchers partnering with the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont have found evidence of a new genus and species of ape that is an unlikely ancestor of both apes and humans, according to findings published in Science magazine Thursday.

Pliobates cataloniae roamed Earth about 11.6 million years ago, before great apes and humans’ evolutionary split from lesser apes known as gibbons. The ape only weighed about 9 to 11 pounds, according to the research.

“This is the first small ape in the fossil record that shows clear features present in all living apes,” Sergio Almécija, an assistant professor of anthropology in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said in an email. “Before this discovery, we had assumed that the living small apes, the gibbons and siamangs, had evolved from larger apes of a size similar to that of a chimpanzee,”

Almécija said he was invited to analyze the fossilized remains by IPC back in 2011, when they were discovered during the construction of a landfill near Barcelona. He said he and his teammates were “stunned” to find a number of similarities between the new species and living apes.

“All scholars in the field of anthropology will start paying more attention to the small primates that lived alongside larger fossil apes in the past,” Almécija said. “Some of them could be also small apes. They just look slightly different that what we would expect, that’s why it’s difficult to identify them for what they are.”

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