Everyone knows we came out of Africa. Yet at one stage, many millions of years ago, our ancestors disappeared from Africa, but remained in Europe. Then Europe emptied out back into Africa. Some of the key traits that make us human such as big brains, dexterous hands, erect posture and a long childhood developed in Europe and were then taken back to Africa.
Apes started their journey in Africa about 26 million years ago.
- Between 20 and 7 million years ago, Earth really was the planet of the apes. At least 100 species roamed the world before the first humans appeared.
Now there are just seven great apes, or hominids (two each of gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees, plus us), along with 16 lesser apes.
The oldest apes we know of in Europe were from the genus Griphopithecus, dating from 17.5 million years ago. They had robust jaws and teeth, adapted for powerful crushing and grinding, and hence the capacity to eat a wider variety of foods, so they could expand their range out of Africa and into Europe and Asia.
Meanwhile between 14 and 8 million years ago, apes became rare in Africa, and the species that stayed were bound for extinction.
Around 12.5 million years ago, in Catalonia, northern Spain, the first ape with a more upright posture appeared. Pierolapithecus, sometimes called Dryopithecus, had:
- a more vertical backbone, a broad chest, arms longer than legs, very mobile wrists, and long, curved, powerfully grasping fingers. These features made Dryopithecus look more like today’s great apes. They also indicate a major transition from walking like a monkey on all fours to ape-like movement, hanging and swinging below branches.
- Hispanopithecus, living in what is now Catalonia a few million years later, had longer arms and an even more upright back. So did Rudapithecus, its contemporary in what is now Hungary. More significantly, to our knowledge Rudapithecus is the first ape to evolve two other key features of modern great apes – a big brain and extended childhood.
Apes had colonised Europe during the warmest phase of the Miocene, when Europe was sub-tropical, but by 14 million years ago the climate stared to cool. The theory is that as Europe cooled apes successfully adapted to the harsher environment.
- Big brains and extended childhoods are associated with higher levels of intelligence, memory, complex learning and strategic thinking, important tools for apes living in challenging seasonal environments – and characteristic attributes of our own species.
Adaptation could only go so far, and about 10 million years ago, European apes headed back to Africa, where with their enhanced capacities, they prospered. About 7 million years ago in Africa we branched off from the chimpanzees.
Somewhere along the line we lost the strong bite and developed more flexible lips and mouths, a thinner neck and an even bigger brain. The combination was necessary to develop language.
We used to think that our species, Homo sapiens, a mere 200,000 years old, came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. Now this has been pushed back to 100,000 years by studying Neanderthal DNA which contains some of ours. The full effect of the gene interchange is another story, but from us they gained the FOXP2 gene which is associated with language. As yet we don’t know whether its expression in Neanderthals enabled them to talk. From them we got good and bad, including in some cases about a 2 per cent increased chance of developing depression, a 1.4 per cent increased risk of a heart attack and a slightly higher susceptibility to nicotine addiction.
The earlier grand tour of Europe was the important one, however. Without the developments that happened in Europe, humans would never have evolved to what we are today.