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An artist's drawing of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus.
(Image courtesy Meike Köhler)

The Missing Link?
Steven Ehrenberg

Monday, November 22—The bones of a newly discovered, 13-million-year-old ape may be the ancestor of humans and of our hairy cousins.

Fossil hunters had just started digging in the Spanish town of Els Hostalets de Pierola when they spotted a tooth. Soon after, they uncovered ribs, fingerbones, parts of a skull, and more teeth. They named the old owner of these bones Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, after the village where the fossils were found.

The find "probably is, or is very close to, the last common ancestor of great apes [a group that includes chimps, gorillas, and orangutans] and humans," said Salvador Moyá-Solá, one of the scientists who made the discovery.

Uncle Ape

From the bones, researchers have already pieced together a picture of the great ape. Pierolapithecus was about the size of a chimp, looked kind of like a gorilla, and acted a bit like a monkey. The old ape weighed about 75 pounds and could lift himself to a standing position. He climbed trees, but stubby fingers kept him from swinging or hanging from the branches.

Pierolapithecus lived at an important time. Scientists believe that 13 million years ago, our family tree began to branch. Orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and eventually humans are all thought to have descended from the great apes who lived then.

"I would call it a missing link," said Meike Köhler, who also worked on the project. "It really fills a gap."

Scientists say that the find is rare because they have so few fossils from that time. Not only did they unearth 83 bones in the Spanish village, but they all belonged to the same ape. Most ape fossils don't last, because they are found in forests, where they fall apart.

Not everybody is convinced that the ape is our long-lost relative. David Begun, a professor at the University of Toronto, thinks the old ape may come from a less-important family. But the find is "very impressive because of its completeness," he agreed.

The scientists will keep digging for more of our 13-million-year-old relatives. "We always need more and better fossils," said Salvador Moyá-Solá.


Jane Goodall: Great Apes
Visit this site to learn more about the great apes. Get to know them by checking out pictures and information on gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and more.

World Almanac for Kids
You'll find information on gorillas, and monkeys at this site just for kids.