Europe’s Apes and Us

Once upon a time (about seven to nine million years ago) the bountiful land of Tuscany was joined with Corsica and Sardinia to form an island. It was the northernmost in an archipelago that spanned the Mediterranean Sea, linking what was to become Europe with ancient Africa. The inhabitants of that long-vanished isle—Tuscinia we might call it—read like creatures from a fairy tale. Giant dormice and vegetarian bears roamed Tuscinia’s hills in the company of pygmy hogs and archaic pikas, while on more southerly isles carnivorous hedgehogs the size of collies and exotic animals such as the goat-like Hoplitomeryx thrived. This last creature was distinguished in its possession of wolf-like canine teeth and five horns (including one over each eye and one in the middle of its forehead).

None of this would matter very much to contemporary science were it not for the fact that Tuscinia was also home to an eminently curious primate. Its bones, which long puzzled scientists, were first unearthed over a century ago by Italian coal-miners. More recent discoveries from Tuscany and Sardinia, however, indicate that Oreopithecus bambolii, as the macaque-sized creature is known, was an unusual ape. What is astonishing about it is that, like us, it habitually walked upright, perhaps using its hands to carry food to a safe place to eat, or holding a shady leaf over its head on hot days. It was as if, before granting the entire planet a later model of upright ape, nature had embarked on an insular experiment.

Oreopithecus stood and walked in a fundamentally different manner from ourselves, for rather than having the great toe aligned with the other toes (in the manner convenient for filling shoes) Oreopithecus‘s great toe was large and stood out at an unexpected 90 degrees. In effect it formed the third prop of a stable tripod upon which the creature balanced. These odd Tuscan primates were probably an evolutionary dead end, meeting their doom in the form of the cats and hyenas that reached their island home from Africa or Europe when the Mediterranean Sea dried out around six million years ago. Oreopithecus was, however, just one species among many kinds of apes (known as hominoids) that once thrived in Europe. Their remains have been found from Spain to the Caucasus, where some, at least, inhabited open forests and woodlands.

We are all familiar with the dominant hypothesis of how walking evolved, even if only through the transition from knuckle-walking ape to upright human that is depicted endlessly in advertising. In his remarkable new book, Lowly Origin, Jonathan Kingdon, taking into account 150 million years of evolution, reexamines the question of “where, when and why our ancestors first stood up.” The book borrows its title from the final words of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man—that human beings, with their “exalted powers,” still bear in their bodily frames “the indelible stamp of [their] lowly origin.”

Not every book on evolution bears a nude self-portrait of …

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