Domenikos Theotokopoulos, from Crete, was known as ‘El Greco’ in Toledo. Now another Greek shares the famous nickname: ‘El Graeco’ is short for Graecopithecus freybergi. The dental records of this ape-like pre-human, who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean area, have put the cat among the anthropological pigeons. 

They show, some experts are claiming, that modern humans evolved in the Balkan region and not in Africa as was previously supposed. The research leading to this conclusion is described in two papers just published in the PLOS ONE journal.

Chimpanzees are our nearest living relatives. Their evolutionary line and the one leading to us diverged sometime between five and seven million years ago. All remains of pre-humans, or ‘hominins’, discovered so far have been African. ‘Lucy’, whose bones came to light in 1974, lived there about 3.2 million years ago. The genus Homo first appeared between two and three million years ago.

Towards the end of the second World War, German soldiers building a bunker in occupied Greece found part of a fossilized jawbone with humanlike features. Then, in 2009, an ancient tooth was discovered in southern Bulgaria. Who the owners of these items were has remained a mystery until now.

The premolars of primates have two or three roots. The roots of chimp teeth diverge from each other, whereas early hominin roots converged and partially fused together. CT scans of the jaw and of the Bulgarian tooth show that roots of El Graeco’s premolars converged and were fused. This suggests that he was a hominin. The split between our line and the one leading to chimps, therefore, had already occurred by his time.

This would not have been such an extraordinary finding in itself, until the date at which El Graeco lived was determined.

El Graeco up earlier than rest

The strata, from which the fossils came, have been examined and dated reliably. They are 7.2 million years old. This means that the split between our evolutionary line and the chimp one must have taken place at least two hundred thousand years earlier than we thought. Moreover, these results suggest that it occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean area rather than in Africa. They also imply that pre-humans left Africa five million years earlier than was previously thought.

If these findings are correct, the accepted model of human evolution has been turned on its head; El Graeco has become our earliest known pre-human ancestor and he was European, not African.

The researchers argue that, as the deserts of North Africa expanded seven million years ago, a savannah-type environment developed in the Balkan region. Soil fragment analyses suggest this. Back then, rhinos, giraffes and antelopes roamed grassy plains and scrubby forests in what is now Greece. ‘The spread of savannahs in Southern Europe may have played a central role in the splitting of the human and chimpanzee lineages’, lead author Madelaine Böhme says. Food shortages there probably forced some great apes to venture out into the savannah and become bi-pedal. When the climate changed again, these hominins moved south to Africa.

Scientists are loath to accept findings which undermine cherished theories which were the basis of their life’s work. Not surprisingly, therefore, many experts are reluctant to abandon the idea that humans evolved in Africa.

The El Graeco evidence, critics point out, is tiny compared to the vast amount of data collected over many decades supporting the Out-of-Africa model. Hominins may have evolved in Africa, some of them moving northwards subsequently. Alternatively, humanlike traits might have developed independently among several chimp-like populations.

  • Madelaine Böhme, et al, Messinian age and savannah environment of the possible hominin Graecopithecus from Europe. PLOS One. May 2017.

The lower jaw of the 7.175 million year old Graecopithecus freybergi (El Graeco) from Pyrgos Vassilissis, Greece might show that human ancestors were presentin the Balkans before they were in Africa.


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