When Apes Conquered Europe


If you happened to visit the swampy forests
of what’s now Italy about 7 million years ago, you might have crossed paths with a very
strange ape. It had a small brain – less than half the
size of a modern chimp’s – and it also had a puzzling combination of other features. It had teeth with sharp cusps, adapted for
slicing through fibrous plants — much more like we see in some of today’s Old World
monkeys than in living apes. And it had well-developed chewing muscles
and a robust jawbone, suggesting that it ate leaves almost exclusively, unlike its other
ape cousins, which mostly lived on fruit. But attached to that small skull with monkey-like
teeth was a body that was much more ape-like. It had a short lower back and a broad torso,
like living apes do, with arms that were long compared to its legs. And it had long, curved fingers and toes,
also like those of modern apes. Now, we know a lot about this weird European
ape, because anthropologists have found many fossils of it, including a relatively complete
one in a coal mine in Tuscany in the 1950s. It was given the delicious-sounding name of
Oreopithecus, or hill ape. And despite some of its more monkey-like features,
experts agree that it was a hominoid — a member of the superfamily that includes all
living and fossil apes. Which is interesting, and kinda strange. Because, not only did Oreopithecus have an
odd combination of features, it was also just one of around fifteen species of apes whose
fossils have been found throughout Europe. And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but,
Europe isn’t home to any of our ape cousins today. And we know that hominoids didn’t originate
on that continent. So, what was Oreopithecus doing in the forests
of Miocene Italy? How and why did this ape wind up in Europe? And, why aren’t there wild apes in Europe
today? Today, our closest evolutionary relatives,
the apes, live only in small pockets of Africa and Asia. But back in the Miocene epoch, between about
23 million and 5 million years ago, apes occupied all of Europe. We find their fossils from Georgia and Turkey
in the east, to Spain in the west, and almost everywhere in between, including Hungary,
Italy, and France. Some we know only from teeth and jawbones,
while others we have relatively complete skeletons of, like Oreopithecus. And we know that they’re apes, rather than
monkeys, because they share many skeletal traits with living apes, like having broad,
shallow torsos; shoulder blades that are positioned on the back of the rib cage rather than on
the sides; and they don’t have tails. They’ve also got what are known as Y-5 molars,
a classic hominoid dental trait. That means they — including you — have lower
molars with five cusps on them, and the grooves in-between form a Y-shape. So, what allowed these apes to make it to
Europe in the first place? Well, our earliest ape-like ancestors had
already evolved and diversified throughout the woodlands and tropical forests of Africa
back in the early Miocene, about 20 million years ago. We know this because we’ve found lots of
their fossils at sites that date back to this time, in Kenya and Uganda. For example, there are Proconsul and Ekembo. They both share some of the same basic features
in their teeth and skulls with later hominoids, and they probably didn’t have tails. But they still clambered around on all fours
in the trees, more like monkeys. And there was Morotopithecus, which also had
those same uniquely hominoid features. But based on the bones in its lower back and
legs, it probably held its torso more upright and climbed more like living apes do. But things started to change for these primates
starting about 17 million years ago. That’s when Africa’s climate started to
become drier, and experience more seasonal variation. Over time, the environment became less tropical,
and more open and grassy. This left early hominoids with fewer of their
preferred foods, like fruits, and more lower-quality foods, like leaves, seeds, and bark. But at the same time, up in Eurasia, the climate
was becoming warmer and more forested. So while Africa was getting drier, Europe
was becoming more hospitable to these early apes and other subtropical and tropical mammals. Which is why it’s around this time, about
16 million years ago, that we see hominoids first start to appear in Eurasia. The first pioneer in Eurasia that we know
about was called Griphopithecus. It’s found at sites in Turkey, Slovakia,
Austria, and Germany, from 16.5 to 16 million years ago. But it was only the first of many. Once hominoids made it into the warm, humid
forests of Europe, they diversified and spread across across the continent. So, soon after, in France, we find Dryopithecus
fontani from 12.5 to 11 million years ago. It was actually the first of the European
apes to be discovered, named by a French paleontologist in 1856. And in northeastern Hungary, about 10 million
years ago, Rudapithecus reigned. It lived in forests that were swampy or maybe
flooded seasonally, and its brain about as big as a chimp’s. Then, in Northern Spain alone, there were
five different genera of apes, ranging in size from Pierolapithecus at about 30 kilograms
to tiny Pliobates at just four and a half kilos. But as the apes of Europe were enjoying their
heyday, big changes were afoot. And by “big” I mean, like, the size of
the Himalayas. Starting about 50 million years ago, in far-off
Southern Asia, the Indian Plate of the Earth’s crust had begun to crush into the Eurasian
plate, slowly forming the massive Himalayas. By about 10 million years ago, this slow-motion
collision started to lift these giant mountains even higher, and faster. And these new mountains changed climate patterns
all over the world. In Europe, this meant that the once subtropical
forests that apes had conquered began to transition into cooler, more seasonal, deciduous woodlands. Many of Europe’s apes found themselves unable
to adapt to the loss of their subtropical forests, and began to go extinct, around 9.6
million years ago. Rudapithecus in Hungary and the many apes
of Spain were likely among the casualties. And as the cooling and drying trend continued,
forests became more fragmented and grasslands began to spread. The few apes that survived to this point were
either highly specialized or isolated in pockets of suitable habitats, or both. For example, Ouranopithecus from northern
Greece seemed to have adapted to a more open, grassy, and shrubby landscape with fewer trees. The wear on its teeth suggests that it ate
roots, tubers, and other hard, abrasive foods. And some anthropologists have actually suggested
that, based on its teeth, Ouranopithecus might have been a hominin, a member of that group
of apes that includes us and all of our extinct relatives that existed after our last common
ancestor with chimps and bonobos. And the same has been suggested about another
European ape: Graecopithecus It’s only known from a partial jawbone found
in Greece and a single upper premolar from Bulgaria. And some scientists have proposed that it,
too, has some traits that are unique to hominins, namely in the roots of two of its teeth. But, as with Ouranopithecus, this claim is
very controversial, mainly because we have many more — and more complete — fossils
of hominins from Africa, which is generally agreed to be where hominins originated. In any case, the final holdout among Europe’s
apes was our old friend Oreopithecus. It lived in forests that were cooler and wetter
than the habitats of the other European apes, which may have helped it adapt to the changing
climate conditions that had doomed its contemporaries. And the fact that it was so well adapted to
its isolated environment might also explain why it had those features that seemed more
monkey-like than ape-like. Oreopithecus lived long after the split between
monkeys and apes, but over time it evolved those teeth with sharp cusps, like those found
in some monkeys, which were perfect for eating leaves — yet another example of convergent
evolution in action. Oreopithecus survived in isolated forests
until about 6 or 7 million years ago, when the chunk of Italy that it lived on – which
was an island at the time – finally collided with the rest of the Italian peninsula, which
of course changed its habitat considerably. By 6 million years ago, the reign of the apes
in Europe was over. But was that it? What was their legacy, for other primates
and for us? Well, like all apes, the apes of Europe were
hominoids, so they are part of our superfamily. But whether they’re distant cousins or direct
ancestors depends on who you ask. Most anthropologists agree that our earliest
ape-like ancestors — early hominoids like Proconsul and Ekembo — evolved in Africa. But they disagree about what happened next. Some experts think the European apes are just
an interesting side-branch of our family tree, and that the hominoids that eventually evolved
into us remained in Africa, and evolved there Their reasoning is that the earliest ape-like
primates are found in Africa, as are our earliest definitive hominin ancestors, and our closest
living ape cousins. But the problem is, we haven’t found conclusive
fossil evidence of those apes that gave rise to the hominins. These were the members of another subfamily,
the Homininae, which includes all of the living African apes as well as humans. But we have yet to find fossils in Africa
of the last common ancestors that gorillas, chimps, and humans all share. There are some potential candidates, but their
fossils are fragmentary and isolated. And the fact that we haven’t found them
might just be an accident of geology. After all, only some locations preserve fossils,
and only some locations have been excavated. But others propose that one of these European
ape species might have returned to Africa and given rise to our lineage. Advocates of this hypothesis point, as evidence,
to several features of the skull and teeth that Eurasian apes share with later hominids. Needless to say, there are lots of gaps in
our understanding of human evolution, and this question — about when, where and exactly
how the hominoids gave rise to hominins — is one of them. But what we do know is that strange apes like
Oreopithecus were just part of an incredible radiation of apes that took place during the
Miocene epoch. And its remains, found in the fossil forests
of Italy, remind us of that time when apes, for a brief span of geologic time, conquered
the European continent. Thanks for joining me today, and special thanks
to our Eontologists, Jake Hart, Jon Ivy, John Davison Ng and let’s not forget STEVE! If you’d like to join them in supporting
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