On Ancestor Apes in Europe

Denzil Maregele/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images
A model of Homo naledi, a newly discovered species of ape, at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, Maropeng, South Africa, September 2015

How many apes do you know? I don’t mean as individuals but as types, or if you wish to be scientific about it, as genera: subdivisions of biological families. Well, I’m sure you can name the chimpanzee (which has the generic name Pan) and the gorilla (Gorilla) for the African apes, and they are indeed the only two African genera that exist, with three or four species within each. I suspect you will name the orangutan (Pongo, two species) and probably the gibbon (Hylobates, twelve species) as Asian apes.

I would certainly hope you appreciate our evolutionary heritage and list humans (Homo, one species) as another type of ape, but I would be concerned if you mentioned baboons, mandrills, capuchins, marmosets, or howlers, all of which are types of monkeys and quite different from apes. I’d be impressed if you named the siamang, which is in the same family as the gibbon, the Hylobatidae, otherwise known as the lesser apes, and provides a further three genera (Nomascus, Hoolock, and Symphalangus). You couldn’t get any further, at least with apes alive today, because there simply aren’t any more to name. But you’ll probably be familiar with Australopithecus as an extinct ape genus to which Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, belonged some 3.5 million years ago (MYA). And if you follow the human evolution literature you might even cite Ardipithecus from 4.4 MYA.

Forgetting about the siamangs, the other seven types of ape—Homo, Pan, Gorilla, Pongo, Hylobates, Australopithecus, and Ardipthecus—were all that I could have confidently mentioned before becoming familiar with The Real Planet of the Apes. I might have stumbled over a couple of other challenging names, Ramapithecus and Sivapithecus, vaguely recalled from student lectures in the early 1980s about their controversial part in human evolution. But within the pages of David Begun’s book, primarily concerned with the Miocene world between 23 and 5 MYA, I’ve now encountered no fewer than fifty genera of apes, ranging from Aegyptopithecus at 33 MYA from Egypt to Indopithecus at 6 MYA from Pakistan, and eventually Gigantopithecus, an ape the size of a polar bear that dwelt in the forests of Southeast Asia until a mere 300,000 years ago. And that is probably just half the number of ape genera that have existed on earth.

I trust that David Begun, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, could have reeled off all fifty tongue-twisting pithecus names without any deviation, hesitation, or repetition. He is a world-leading authority on ape evolution and has gotten to know many of them as intimately as one can by literally pulling them out of the ground, poking about in their nasal cavities, and meticulously measuring their finger bones to write what has…

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