Most human origins stories are not compatible with known fossils


Share post:

In the 150 years since Charles Darwin speculated that humans originated in Africa, the number of species in the human family tree has exploded, but so has the level of dispute concerning early human evolution. Fossil apes are often at the center of the debate, with some scientists dismissing their importance to the origins of the human lineage (the “hominins”), and others conferring them starring evolutionary roles. A new review published in the journal Science looks at the major discoveries in hominin origins since Darwin’s works and argues that fossil apes can inform us about essential aspects of ape and human evolution, including the nature of our last common ancestor.

Most human origins stories are not compatible with known fossils
The last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans represents the starting point
of human and chimpanzee evolution. Fossil apes play an essential role when it
comes to reconstructing the nature of our ape ancestry
[Credit: © Christopher M. Smith]

Humans diverged from apes—specifically, the chimpanzee lineage—at some point between about 9.3 million and 6.5 million years ago, towards the end of the Miocene epoch. To understand hominin origins, paleoanthropologists aim to reconstruct the physical characteristics, behavior, and environment of the last common ancestor of humans and chimps.

“When you look at the narrative for hominin origins, it’s just a big mess—there’s no consensus whatsoever,” said Sergio AlmĂ©cija, a senior research scientist in the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Anthropology and the lead author of the review. “People are working under completely different paradigms, and that’s something that I don’t see happening in other fields of science.”

There are two major approaches to resolving the human origins problem: “Top-down,” which relies on analysis of living apes, especially chimpanzees; and “bottom-up,” which puts importance on the larger tree of mostly extinct apes. For example, some scientists assume that hominins originated from a chimp-like knuckle-walking ancestor. Others argue that the human lineage originated from an ancestor more closely resembling, in some features, some of the strange Miocene apes.

In reviewing the studies surrounding these diverging approaches, AlmĂ©cija and colleagues with expertise ranging from paleontology to functional morphology and phylogenetics discuss the limitations of relying exclusively on one of these opposing approaches to the hominin origins problem. “Top-down” studies sometimes ignore the reality that living apes (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and hylobatids) are just the survivors of a much larger, and now mostly extinct, group. On the other hand, studies based on the “bottom-up”approach are prone to giving individual fossil apes an important evolutionary role that fits a preexisting narrative.

Most human origins stories are not compatible with known fossils
The positional repertoire preceding human bipedalism is unknown (so it is still in some living apes)
[Credit: © Sergio Almécija]

“In The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin speculated that humans originated in Africa from an ancestor different from any living species. However, he remained cautious given the scarcity of fossils at the time,” AlmĂ©cija said. “One hundred fifty years later, possible hominins—approaching the time of the human-chimpanzee divergence—have been found in eastern and central Africa, and some claim even in Europe. In addition, more than 50 fossil ape genera are now documented across Africa and Eurasia. However, many of these fossils show mosaic combinations of features that do not match expectations for ancient representatives of the modern ape and human lineages. As a consequence, there is no scientific consensus on the evolutionary role played by these fossil apes.”


Overall, the researchers found that most stories of human origins are not compatible with the fossils that we have today.

“Living ape species are specialized species, relicts of a much larger group of now extinct apes. When we consider all evidence—that is, both living and fossil apes and hominins—it is clear that a human evolutionary story based on the few ape species currently alive is missing much of the bigger picture,” said study co-author Ashley Hammond, an assistant curator in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology.

Kelsey Pugh, a Museum postdoctoral fellow and study co-author adds, “The unique and sometimes unexpected features and combinations of features observed among fossil apes, which often differ from those of living apes, are necessary to untangle which features hominins inherited from our ape ancestors and which are unique to our lineage.”

Living apes alone, the authors conclude, offer insufficient evidence. “Current disparate theories regarding ape and human evolution would be much more informed if, together with early hominins and living apes, Miocene apes were also included in the equation,” says AlmĂ©cija. “In other words, fossil apes are essential to reconstruct the ‘starting point’ from which humans and chimpanzees evolved.”

Source: American Museum of Natural History [May 06, 2021]

Support The Archaeology News Network with a small donation!


  1. Thanks for this article. The review of Sergio AlmĂ©cija cs is still the traditional approach, but it doesn't learn us much about why exactly Hominoidea (apes+humans, also called "Lati-sternalia") became so drastically different from monkeys: why did we evolve broad pelvises, thoraxes & very wide breast-bones? why did we lose the tail (an important organ for movements, esp. in the branches)? why did we become much larger than monkeys (did gibbons -with gestaton periods "too" long for their size – have larger ancestors?)? why did our arms become longer than our legs then (Homo later evolved even longer legs)? why did our spine shift to centrally in the torso (rather than dorsally as in monkeys)? The answer to most or all of these questions (broad sternum, large body, tail loss, long arms, central spine…) can be found IMO in our TREE paper: Verhaegen, Puech & Munro 2002 "Aquarboreal Ancestors?" Trends Ecol.Evol.17:212-7, or for an update, google "ape human evolution made easy PPT Verhaegen".



Related articles

Extinct ape gets a facelift, 12 million years later

A new study led by scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn College, and the Catalan...

Researchers mapping genetic history of the Caribbean

In the island chain called the Lesser Antilles, stretching from the Virgin Islands south to Trinidad and Tobago,...

Kennewick Man to return to Native Americans for reburial

One of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in North America will be given back to American...

Warts and all: Researchers reconstruct face of Cro-Magnon man

Cro-Magnon man had a face covered in lumps including a large one on his forehead—likely benign tumours caused...

Teaching science to the religious?

Vicious, winner-take-all competition in nature is an essential pillar of evolutionary theory, but it frequently describes the mindset...

The entire genome of 35,000 year-old skull from southern Romania sequenced

For the first time, researchers have successfully sequenced the entire genome from the skull of PeƟtera Muierii 1,...

DNA study: Jomon woman could tolerate fatty foods, alcohol

Researchers who decoded the entire genome of a woman who lived in Hokkaido 3,800 years ago said she...

Small family size increases the wealth of descendants but reduces evolutionary success

Scientists have taken a step closer to solving one of life's mysteries – why family size generally falls...