Temporal range: Late Miocene
|Holotype jaw and premolar|
von Koenigswald, 1972
Graecopithecus freybergi is a hominin originally identified by a single mandible found in 1944. Since then, analysis of tooth specimens, dated to 7.2 million years ago, has led to suggestions that Graecopithecus may have been the oldest direct ancestor of humans excluding the chimpanzee lineage, or alternatively the last common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees, though other scientists are skeptical of these claims. The creature was nicknamed ‘El Graeco' by scientists.
The original Graecopithecus specimen mandible was found in 1944, "reportedly unearthed as the occupying German forces were building a wartime bunker". The mandible with a third molar that is very worn, the root of a second molar, and a fragment of a premolar is from a site called Pyrgos Vassilissis, northwest of Athens and is dated from the late Miocene. Excavation of the site is not possible (as of 1986) due to the owner having built a swimming pool on the location.
G. freybergi is considered to be possibly the same taxon as Ouranopithecus macedoniensis. The hominid is the least well known of those found within Europe. The Trachilos footprints discovered in Crete in 2002 and researched in 2010 may be related to Graecopithecus.
An examination of the detailed morphology of molar teeth from two fossils of G. freybergi published in 2017 suggests that it was a homininan, sharing ancestry with Homo but not with the chimpanzees (Pan). If this classification is correct, Graecopithecus would be the oldest known representative of the human lineage after the human-chimpanzee split, in 19th-century terminology, the "missing link" between human and non-human primates. The species was found to be some two hundred thousand years older than the oldest known hominid found in Africa (not necessarily ancestral to the human lineage), Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The emergence of Homo itself is dated to close to 4 million years later than Graecopithecus, so that the appearance of Graecopithecus in Europe does not preclude the development of Homo proper in East Africa (as suggested by Homo habilis being found in Tanzania); however, the popular press reporting on the 2017 study did cast its result in terms of determining the "birthplace of mankind". Graecopithecus lived in southeast Europe 7.2 million years ago, and if the premise of the study is correct, Graecopithecus, after evolving in Europe, would have migrated back to Africa about 7 million years ago where its descendants would eventually evolve into the genus Homo.
David Begun, one of the co-authors of the study, was quoted as saying that "[t]his dating allows us to move the human-chimpanzee split into the Mediterranean area." This was set against a quote by an uninvolved anthropologist saying that "[i]t is possible that the human lineage originated in Europe, but very substantial fossil evidence places the origin in Africa [...] I would be hesitant about using a single character from an isolated fossil to set against the evidence from Africa." It has also been proposed the Graecopithecus may not be a direct ancestor of the human lineage, but instead may have evolved its hominin-like traits independently; it is noted that, "not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins." Other scientists have also expressed skepticism of Begun's classification. "Bernard Wood at George Washington University" described the hypothesis as "relatively weak" and "Sergio Almécija, also at George Washington University, says it is important to bear in mind that primates seem particularly prone to evolving similar features independently. “Single characters are not reliable to make big evolutionary [claims].”
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|Wikispecies has information related to Graecopithecus|
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