When modern humans left Africa roughly 100 thousand years ago, it was only the last of several waves of hominoid migration that had previously included the likes of Neanderthals and Homo Erectus. Now a tooth in Germany reveals the original hominoid migration.
A molar tooth was discovered in the Alpine region of southwestern Germany. 17 million years ago, the tooth’s owner lived near an ancient lake full of subtropical vegetation, in a somewhat humid climate. The tooth itself was found way back in 1973, but it wasn’t until 2001 that its potential significance as an extremely ancient hominoid fossil was recognized. Using shifts in the Earth’s magnetic poles as a guide, German researchers were able to date the tooth back to either 17 or 17.1 million years ago with great precision.
So what did this particular ancient ape look like? According to most current evolutionary theories, human evolution doesn’t diverge from that of chimpanzees until seven million years ago, and this is ten million years beforethat. Indeed, at this point, our evolutionary ancestors had not yet become distinct from gorillas, orangutans, or even gibbons.
We’re definitely not talking about an ancient human walking around Germany 17 million years ago, but we are looking at quite possibly the oldest recognizably ape ancestor of humanity ever found outside Africa. For their part, the researchers say this likely represented an evolutionary dead end, with all the members of this ancient species dying out. About three million years later, a new group of ancient apes would leave Africa for Eurasia, and these would become orangutans.