A new discovery by scientists at the Malapa fossil site has brought forth the conclusion that the oldest baboon skull ever found is 2 million years old and has been dug from a cave in South Africa. It has flawlessly filled a gap within evolutionary history of modern baboons and fit perfectly with earlier estimations.
The team of scientists led by Dr. Christopher Gilbert, an anthropologist of Hunter College at the University of New York have found the remains of the earliest baboon ever found, in quite remarkable condition when compared to other fossils uncovered in the past. It’s set to be between 2.026 and 2.36 million years old and is an excellent representation of Papio angusticeps.
It is the closest known relative to today’s modern baboons, Papio hamadryas, that are spread through the sub-Saharan region in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The new findings could provide important insight into the evolutionary course of the modern primates.
The partial skull of P. angusticeps has perfectly proven the similarities to P. hamadryas, as according to Dr. Gilbert, it would be near impossible for anyone to tell the difference between them. Molecular clock studies have shown that baboons have broken away from their relatives in between 1.8 million to 2.2 million years ago, but no proper fossilized samples have been found from that time period.
It has led to many questions being posed about the origins of today’s baboons, but the findings at Malapa might answer a good number of them, as it has come as the perfect confirmation that P. angusticeps is indeed an early population of P. hamadryas.
Researchers have discovered the well preserved skull at the same dig site where the newest hominin species, Australopithecus sediba, was found in 2010. The find has been a happy accident, though not unexpected, as baboons have been documented to living with hominins, as hinted by fossils found in South and East Africa.
They are one of the evolutionary yard sticks often used to measure and compare when studying human evolution.
The discovery adds more fuel to the fires of mystery of the Malapa site, mainly to the reason why that particular cave was found so heavily populated by Australopithecus sediba, and so little by monkeys.
It has led to many speculations, one of which being that the hole was well covered and many human ancestors fell down to their death to be perfectly preserved for us to dig today, while monkeys took the safer course by remaining in the trees.