Two recent studies have contradicted the long-held belief that the unique features of apes, including the upright torso, are the result of living in a forest environment requiring greater reach to access fruit in trees and bushes.
The two studies funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Science, looked at the earliest evidence for C4 grasses (warm-season grasses) that were abundant in Africa, and how they with open habitats may have influenced early ape evolution.
Eastern African Catarrhine and Hominoid Evolution Project
Starting in 2013, Associate Professor of Geosciences at Baylor University, Daniel Peppe, heading an international team of researchers, concentrated on understanding how ancient environments influenced the evolution of early apes in eastern Africa.
Previously, researchers were off the view that in the early Miocene period (approximately 15 to 20 million years ago) equatorial Africa was covered by a semi-continuous forest and that open habitats with C4 grasses did not proliferate until about eight to 10 million years ago.
Associate Professor Peppe and his researchers looked at whether this assertion was true or the study was an anomaly or alternatively an indication of the diversity or ecosystems during the early Miocene.
The studies to determine if open habitats and C4 plants proliferated much earlier than previously believed could have important implications in understanding the features and adaptations of early apes and the reasons why there are tropical C4 grasslands in Africa and worldwide.
The research was conducted in cooperation with paleoanthropologists at nine Early Miocene fossil sites in the East African Rift Valley in Kenya and Uganda.
It was in areas similar to these, in certain parts of East Africa, that discoveries of early tool use – discoveries that were essential in shaping our present understanding of early human development – were found.
The research group, collectively known as the Eastern African Catarrhine and Hominoid Evolution project (REACHE), also focused on understanding the ecosystems in the early Miocene period and in particular the prevalence of open environments and C4 grasses, and how the different environments could have affected the evolution of early apes.
Professor Kieran McNulty, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, involved in the project said, “The result of this decade-long research pushes back the oldest evidence of C4 grass-dominated habitats in Africa – and globally – by more than 10 million years calling for a revised paleoecological interpretations of the development of plants and mammals.”
If you are interested in the role that East Africa has played in the development of humanity, consider reading either of these articles:
‘DNA study demonstrates Africans’ key role in Swahili civilization’.
‘Oldest human stone tools found in Kenya’