When an ancient, toothy lower jaw was found in 1944 in Pyrgos Vassilissis, Greece, few paid much attention to the fossil. World War II was still underway, so the discovery was largely overlooked by all but the most ardent anthropologists. Even Pyrgos Vassilissis, a former royal estate on the Greek mainland, is often bypassed by travelers on their way to bustling Athens.
Interest in both the fossil and Pyrgos Vassilissis may soon grow, however, owing to the announcement of an explosive finding by an international team of researchers. In a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, the scientists outline how the jaw likely belonged to the earliest known hominin, or pre-human — providing evidence that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A second paper describes what this region’s climate was like during the lifetime of the human-ish species, Graecopithecus freybergi, otherwise known informally as “El Graeco.” Taken together, the findings support the idea that regal Pyrgos Vassilissis lies within the site where humanity first evolved 7.2 million years ago.
Project leader Madelaine Böhme of the Senckengberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, co-author Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and their colleagues analyzed both the Pyrgos fossil and a related upper premolar tooth unearthed in Azmaka, Bulgaria.
“El Graeco is the oldest known potential hominin,” Spassov said. He is several hundred thousand years older than the oldest potential pre-human from Africa: 6–7-million-year-old Sahelanthropus from Chad.
Anthropologists use the term hominin, or pre-human, because the last common ancestor of humans and chimps clearly retained both non-human primate and human characteristics. Although El Graeco is only known from the fossil jaw and premolar, Böhme and her team could see how these features were evolving into more human-like forms. Computer tomography visualized the internal structures of the fossils and found that the roots of the premolars were widely fused.