Northern France was already inhabited more than 650,000 years ago

The first evidence of human occupation in northern France has been put back by 150,000 years, thanks to the findings of a team of scientists from the CNRS and the Musee National d’Histoire Naturelle at the emblematic site of Moulin Quignon in the department of the Somme.

Northern France was already inhabited more than 650,000 years ago
Photographs of three of the bifaces discovered during the archaeological excavation at Moulin Quignon.
 (a) Biface with extended black coatings of Fe-Mn oxides typical of lithic artefacts discovered in the
lower part of the Moulin Quignon sequence. (b) Biface from Grs-j unit. (c,d) facial and lateral
view of a biface from Grs-j unit with thick base [Credit: Pierre Antoine et al. 2019]

The site, now located in the gardens of a housing estate in Abbeville, was rediscovered in 2017 after falling into oblivion for over 150 years.
More than 260 flint objects, including 5 bifaces or hand axes, dating from 650,000 to 670,000 years ago, have been uncovered in sands and gravel deposited by the river Somme about 30 metres above the current valley.

This also makes Moulin Quignon the oldest site in north-western Europe where bifaces have been found. The discovery confirms the central position of the Somme Valley in current debates about Europe’s oldest settlements.

The study was in the online journal Scientific Reports.

Source: CNRS [September 17, 2019]

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Rare 10 million-year-old fossil unearths new view of human evolution

Near an old mining town in Central Europe, known for its picturesque turquoise-blue quarry water, lay Rudapithecus. For 10 million years, the fossilized ape waited in Rudabanya, Hungary, to add its story to the origins of how humans evolved.

Rare 10 million-year-old fossil unearths new view of human evolution
Rudapithecus was pretty ape-like and probably moved among branches like apes do now — holding its body upright
and climbing with its arms. However, it would have differed from modern great apes by having a more flexible
 lower back, which would mean when Rudapithecus came down to the ground, it might have had the
ability to stand upright more like humans do [Credit: John Siddick]

What Rudabanya yielded was a pelvis — among the most informative bones of a skeleton, but one that is rarely preserved. An international research team led by Carol Ward at the University of Missouri analyzed this new pelvis and discovered that human bipedalism — or the ability for people to move on two legs — might possibly have deeper ancestral origins than previously thought.
The Rudapithecus pelvis was discovered by David Begun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto who invited Ward to collaborate with him to study this fossil. Begun’s work on limb bones, jaws and teeth has shown that Rudapithecus was a relative of modern African apes and humans, a surprise given its location in Europe. But information on its posture and locomotion has been limited, so the discovery of a pelvis is important.

Rare 10 million-year-old fossil unearths new view of human evolution
A fossil pelvis from Rudapithecus. The pelvis is among
 the most informative bones of a skeleton, but one that
is rarely preserved [Credit: Carol Ward]

«Rudapithecus was pretty ape-like and probably moved among branches like apes do now — holding its body upright and climbing with its arms,» said Ward, a Curators Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the MU School of Medicine and lead author on the study.
«However, it would have differed from modern great apes by having a more flexible lower back, which would mean when Rudapithecus came down to the ground, it might have had the ability to stand upright more like humans do. This evidence supports the idea that rather than asking why human ancestors stood up from all fours, perhaps we should be asking why our ancestors never dropped down on all fours in the first place.»

Rare 10 million-year-old fossil unearths new view of human evolution
A Rudapithecus pelvis fossil, center, overlain on a skeleton of a siamang, compared with a macaque
on the left and orangutan on the right [Credit: University of Missouri]

Modern African apes have a long pelvis and short lower back because they are such large animals, which is one reason why they typically walk on all fours when on the ground. Humans have longer, more flexible lower backs, which allow them to stand upright and walk efficiently on two legs, a hallmark characteristic of human evolution.
Ward said if humans evolved from an African ape-like body build, substantial changes to lengthen the lower back and shorten the pelvis would have been required. If humans evolved from an ancestor more like Rudapithecus, this transition would have been much more straightforward.

Rare 10 million-year-old fossil unearths new view of human evolution
Excavation at the Rudabanya site [Credit: David R. Begun]

«We were able to determine that Rudapithecus would have had a more flexible torso than today’s African apes because it was much smaller — only about the size of a medium dog,» Ward said. «This is significant because our finding supports the idea suggested by other evidence that human ancestors might not have been built quite like modern African apes.»
Ward teamed up with Begun to study the pelvis along with MU alumna Ashley Hammond, Assistant Curator of Biological Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, and J. Michael Plavcan, a professor of anthropology at University of Arkansas.

Since the fossil was not 100% complete, the team used new 3D modeling techniques to digitally complete its shape, then compared their models with modern animals. Ward said their next step will be to conduct a 3D analysis of other fossilized body parts of Rudapithecus to gather a more complete picture of how it moved, giving more insight into the ancestors of African apes and humans.

The study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Source: University of Missouri [September 17, 2019]

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Toothed fossil from New Zealand rewrites history of seabird family

Bony-toothed birds (Pelagornithids), an ancient family of huge seafaring birds, were thought to have evolved in the Northern Hemisphere — but that theory has been upended by the discovery of the family’s oldest, but smallest member in New Zealand.

Toothed fossil from New Zealand rewrites history of seabird family
Protodontopteryx ruthae [Credit: Derek Onley/Canterbury Museum]

At 62 million-years-old, the newly-discovered ‘Protodontopteryx ruthae’, is one of the oldest named bird species in the world. It lived in New Zealand soon after the dinosaurs died out.

While its descendants were some of the biggest flying birds ever, with wingspans of more than 5 metres, ‘Protodontopteryx’ was only the size of an average gull. Like other members of its family, the seabird had bony, tooth-like projections on the edge of its beak.

The seabird fossil was identified by the same team that recently announced the discovery of a 1.6 metre-high giant penguin from the same site.

Amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love found the partial ‘Protodontopteryx’ skeleton last year at the Waipara Greensand fossil site. The bird was named ‘Protodontopteryx ruthae’ after Love’s wife Ruth. Love wanted to thank her for tolerating his decades-long passion for palaeontology.

Fellow amateur Alan Mannering prepared the bones, and a team comprising Love, Mannering, Canterbury Museum Curators Dr Paul Scofield and Dr Vanesa De Pietri and Dr Gerald Mayr of Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, described ‘Protodontopteryx’.

Toothed fossil from New Zealand rewrites history of seabird family
Protodontopteryx fossil showing the bony, tooth-like projections on the bird’s beak
[Credit: Canterbury Museum]

Dr Scofield says the age of the fossilised bones suggests pelagornithids evolved in the Southern Hemisphere. «While this bird was relatively small, the impact of its discovery is hugely significant in our understanding of this family. Until we found this skeleton, all the really old pelagornithids had been found in the Northern Hemisphere, so everyone thought they’d evolved up there.»

«New Zealand was a very different place when ‘Protodontoperyx’ were in the skies. It had a tropical climate — the sea temperature was about 25 degrees so we had corals and giant turtles,» he adds.

Dr Mayr says the discovery of ‘Protodontopteryx’ was «truly amazing and unexpected. Not only is the fossil one of the most complete specimens of a pseudotoothed bird, but it also shows a number of unexpected skeletal features that contribute to a better understanding of the evolution of these enigmatic birds.»

Later pelagornithid species evolved to soar over oceans with some species measuring up to 6.4 metres across the wings. ‘Protodontopteryx’s’ skeleton suggests it was less suited for long-distance soaring than later pelagornithids and probably covered much shorter ranges. Its short, broad pseudoteeth were likely designed for catching fish. Later species had needle-like pseudoteeth which were likely used to catch soft-bodied prey like squid.

Toothed fossil from New Zealand rewrites history of seabird family
Dr Paul Scofield and amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love examine a section of riverbank on the Waipara River,
near where the Protodontopteryx fossil was found [Credit: Canterbury Museum]

Dr De Pietri says «because ‘Protodontopteryx’ was less adapted to sustained soaring than other known pelagornithids, we can now say that pseudoteeth evolved before these birds became highly specialised gliders.»
The last pelagornithid species died out around 2.5 million years ago, just before modern humans evolved.

The Waipara Greensand site where the ‘Protodontopteryx’ skeleton was found has yielded several important scientific discoveries in recent years, including ancient penguins and the world’s oldest tropicbird fossil.

Some of these discoveries, including the ‘Protodontopteryx’ fossil, will be displayed in an exhibition about ancient New Zealand at the Museum later this year.

This research was funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund and is published today in the journal Papers in Palaeontology.

Source: Canterbury Museum [September 17, 2019]

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