19th November 2004
The fossil of an ancient species of ape has been unearthed in Hostalet de Pierola in Anoia in Catalonia . It is some 13 million years old. The researchers claim that it is an ancestor of all living great apes. The ape has been named Pierolapithecus catalaunicus , or Pau for short, Catalan for Paul, but also for 'peace', chosen by his discoverers in allusion to Iraq . The first fragments were dug up at the same time as the huge anti-war demonstrations in Spain in 2003.
The researchers claim that Pierolapithecus catalaunicus is the first fossil of its time which clearly shows all the basic features of modern apes (including humans). It is, as they say, a missing link. These features include a stiff lower spine, a short body and strong wrists which would have enabled it climb vertically. But it would not have swung - this was a later adaptation of chimpanzees and orang-utans - its hands were too small. DNA analysis shows that apes diverged from monkeys some 25 to 20 million years ago, most notably losing their tail. The great apes, a group that today includes chimpanzees, gorillas and humans, then split from lesser apes, (gibbons, etc) between 16 and 11 million years ago.
" Pierolapithecus probably is, or is very close to, the last common ancestor of great apes and humans ," said Professor Moyà-Solà, one of Pau 's finders.
Pau would have weighed some 35 kilos and stood a metre or so tall, a little smaller than a chimpanzee. He lived up in the trees, much like a chimp does today. He ate mainly fruit but would have taken insects and small mammals when the chance arose. Pau 's incisors were long so we know he was a male. Only the front part of his skull has been found so we don't know how intelligent he was. He was young when he died. Maybe one day he descended a tree to drink at some pool, where a predator lay in wait. After eating its fill, the killer would have given up the body to carrion eaters, probably the ancestors of today's hyenas, which would have finished him off in a question of minutes. We know this because the fossilised bones were scattered over an area of 20 odd square metres as would occur when a pack of hyenas scraps and scrambles over the bones. Also, some of the bones are scratched with small teeth marks.
Thirteen million years ago, slap bang in the middle of the Miocene, much of Iberia was a lush tropical forest. To the north, the Pyrenees were engaged in constant tectonic activity. Its eastern coastline was drawn differently and was bathed not by the Mediterranean but by the Tethys Sea , which stretched in a long arm all the way to India . The Tethys was slowly closing and its western stretch would eventually, several million years later, be enclosed by Africa and Eurasia to form the Mediterranean . The forest would have looked something like Borneo does today. Fossils of primitive elephants, rhinos and lynx, flying squirrels, forest deer and small carnivores have all been found in the dig, alongside Pau . This must have been dense forest for no antelope or bovine species, which need wide open spaces in which roam, have been dug up. The researchers have also turned up dozens of tortoise shells. Southern Europe would have been an oasis of ecological stability in a time of global cataclysm and massive climate change. As the Himalayas and the Rockies pushed and heaved their way upwards, huge quantities of calcium carbonate were weathered from the slopes. In consequence, immense quantities of CO2 were trapped in ocean sediments which led to a significant decline in atmospheric CO2. Temperatures quickly dropped and ice began to develop for the first time in the Antarctic. This led in turn to the appearance of the first savannahs in Africa . The freezing of sea water meant sea levels dropped forming land bridges everywhere, including between Africa and Europe , allowing African fauna in, including many primates. Then for some unknown reason things in Southern Europe and North Africa began to get warmer and wetter. And so the jungles of Anoia were formed. Pierolapithecus catalaunicus would have been also found in North Africa across the land bridge. This was lucky for the species, and who knows, lucky for us too because here in Europe the species was condemned. The continual rise of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plain would have their impact in Eurasia . The climate became more and more seasonal. The ices of the Artic began a timid onslaught from the north. Things got a little colder, and Pau 's descendants succumbed.
I've drawn on a number of sources for this article, but in particular thanks to "El mundo de 'Pierolapithecus'" by Jordi Agustí (director del Instituto de Paleontología M. Crusafont de la Diputación de Barcelona ) (El País 19th Nov.)