The last European great ape lived 7 million years ago

Millions of years ago, Europe was a vast savanna full of giraffes, elephants, and rhinos. There was also at least one hominid ape, according to a fossilized tooth recently discovered in Bulgaria. Meet the latest complication in our evolutionary story.

The tooth was unearthed by a team of Bulgarian, French, and German paleontologists, including geologist Philipe Havlik and Professor Madelaine Böhme, who you can see working at the Chirpan, Bulgaria site in the photo up top. The tooth is a pre-molar belonging to a hominid that lived about 7 million years ago.

That's two million years later than what was previously the most recent European hominid, an orangutan-like ape called Ouranopithecus macedoniensis that was found in Greece and dates back 9.2 million years. The researchers are confident the specimen belonged to a hominid - a family that includes humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans - based on the shape and thickness of the tooth enamel, which could only come from an ape.

Until the discovery of this tooth, researchers had assumed any European apes died out around the time of Ouranopithecus macedoniensis. That's because, about 9 million years ago, the European climate radically shifted and the lush, evergreen forests were replaced with wide open savanna. Since the apes depended on fruit, which now wouldn't be available for several months of the year, the assumption was that this new ecosystem would have wiped out the European hominids.

But at least one species apparently survived this climate cataclysm. And there's little doubt this ape did indeed live on the open savanna - analysis of the tooth's surface reveals it ate mostly grass, seeds, and nuts, all of which are hard foods that leave distinctive impressions on the tooth. That's a similar diet to what African hominids like the Australopithecines, including the famous specimen Lucy, would eat millions of years later. Plus, the archaeological layer at which the tooth was found also contained remains of savanna animals like gazelles, antelopes, and even saber-toothed cats.

While this find doesn't rewrite our own evolutionary story, it does add another complication. Recent years have seen multiple finds that suggest ancient humans and our ancestor species were far more common outside Africa than previously thought, and this European hominid is just the latest evidence of that.

This find and others like it could simply represent an evolutionary dead end, a population that quietly went extinct while Australopithecus and, much later, Homo sapiens emerged in Africa. Or, just possibly, we could be looking at a previously unknown featured player in our history, one that could rewrite what we think we know about our evolution. Either way, this is one exciting tooth.

Via the Journal of Human Evolution. Image by Prof. Madelaine Böhme.</em.