Looking for Man's origins in a Bulgarian savannah

June 16, 2017
Palaeontologists work near the site in Bulgaria where a fossilised tooth with three roots was found, which some researchers say may be a sign of the oldest known human ancestor

Seven million years ago the sunflower and corn fields in parts of southern Bulgaria were like an African savannah, roamed by gazelles and giraffes.

And perhaps also, amazingly, by the oldest known human ancestor—which most scientists have hitherto believed came from Africa.

A small team of researchers hopes to find proof of in Bulgaria as they gingerly recover fossils from the clay of a dried-up river bed near the sleepy village of Rupkite in the June sunshine.

It all began in 2002 when the five-year-old grandson of local amateur paleontologist Petar Popdimitrov found what looked like a fossilised with three roots.

"The whole of it was of a blue-greyish colour. It looked very worn out, especially the chewing surface. We thought that it was an animal one," Popdimitrov, 76, told AFP.

"But my son-in-law, who is a dentist, said in the evening that it might be human."

He might be right, in a way, and the discovery could be nothing short of momentous, potentially proving that humans diverged from apes not in Africa but in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 2007 Popdimitrov showed the tooth to Professor Nikolai Spassov from Bulgaria's National Museum of Natural History and to Denis Geraads from the Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

A model of an isolated fossilised tooth with three roots such as the one found in Bulgaria could potentially mean that humans diverged from apes not in Africa but in the eastern Mediterranean

Now, 10 years on, a team led by Spassov and Madelaine Boehme from Tuebingen University in Germany have put forward the theory that the tooth matches a jawbone found near Athens in 1944.

Conducting new studies on the jawbone, discovered by German soldiers digging a bunker in World War II, and on the tooth and the fauna in the area of Bulgaria where they were found, the researchers have come up with a bold and controversial theory.

They posit that both items are from a creature called Graecopithecus, and that it was a hominin—the collective term for humans and our direct line of non-ape ancestors. Graecopithecus, the researchers hypothesise, migrated to Africa only later.

Chad competition

Previously it was assumed that the oldest potential hominin was the Sahelanthropus found in Chad in west Africa in 2001, Spassov said, and thought to be around seven million years old.

"Now we think that it was the Graecopithecus found in Greece and Bulgaria because our two finds are several hundred thousand years older," he said.

The male Graecopithecus weighed around 40 kilos (90 pounds), as much as a female chimpanzee today, with massive and powerful jaws capable of chewing tree bark and chestnuts, Spassov said.

"We can also assume that it walked upright," he added.

Professor Nikolay Spassov (R) works on a dig in Bulgaria where he hopes to find more skeletal remains to support his controversial theory on human origins

Spassov's theory however has been widely criticised in scientific circles for lack of proof, prompting him to search for more evidence.

"This opposition stimulates our desire to find something more than a tooth and a broken jaw," he said.

"That's why we are here—to look for whatever part of a skeleton, preferably pelvis, hip, jaw or skull that will enable us to cement our theory and tell much more about our potential first ancestors."

Chronic lack of funding for scientific research and field trips in Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest country, has limited his team's excavations to just eight days this summer.

But they have unearthed hundreds of fossils that will be carefully cleaned and examined and hopefully turn out to be parts of Graecopithecus. Excavations are also expected to start in neighbouring Greece and Macedonia in September.

The tooth meanwhile will take pride of place in Popdimitrov's new private museum in the town of Chirpan, near Rupkite.

"I have the feeling that I was in contact with something that had lived millions of years ago," he said.

Explore further: Scientists find 7.2-million-year-old pre-human remains in the Balkans

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2 / 5 (8) Jun 16, 2017
This is a well written article about a topic that doesn't seem all that credible. One tooth ... that was dated how? And a jawbone, also recovered in a disturbed area?

It would take something amazing, the European equivalent of the Naledi cave, to turn this into more than a curiosity.
2.8 / 5 (11) Jun 16, 2017
This is a well written article about a topic that doesn't seem all that credible. One tooth ... that was dated how?
So you're saying that YOU think the 'topic' seems implausible because you haven't bothered to find out how they dated the tooth. Is that right?

In fact YOU decided this is only a curiosity based on nothing more than what you read in a physorg news release. And you thought this opinion of yours was worth recording for the world to read.
1.9 / 5 (9) Jun 16, 2017
Uhh, dear Otto's spirit guide.
Yes, nrauhauser did exactly what purpose there is for permitting comments to these articles.

Now, I am to unapologetically ask both of you, anyone else reading this article and especially the dumbass who edited and/or rewrote this article for this site.

"Seven million years ago the sunflower and corn fields in parts of southern Bulgaria were like an African savannah"

Please? Someone point me to a savanna lush in sunflower and corn fields. After the all too infrequent rains, I'd believe a very brief profusion of wildflowers.

But corn? Even if you meant wheat and barley, and not maize? I still do not believe, certainly not 7+million years. Hell, it would just be barely acceptable to claim 70 thousand years ago for recognizable ancestral wheat or barley. And less than 7 +/- thousand years for the concept of 'fields' to take root. (rimshot!)

3.9 / 5 (7) Jun 17, 2017
Uhh, dear rrwillsj,

Wow. It's extremely obvious to someone with reading comprehension skills and basic knowledge about the radical ways in which regions of this planet can change over time-- for instance I live on vast plains of grass, wheat, and corn at 3000 feet above seal level, but 70 million years ago there was a shallow sea here, and it is easy to find fossilized mussel shells, plesiosaur and mosasaur skeletons and the skeletons of gigantic fish, as well as sharks teeth in many places-- that what the article is saying is that there are NOW fields of sunflowers and corn there, but 7 MILLION years ago there WERE conditions more like an African savannah, roamed by gazelles and giraffes. I think what stuns me the most is that you were bothered by the mention of sunflowers and corn, but let the gazelles and giraffes slip by.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 17, 2017
The real problem is that it's now widely acknowledged that humans didn't evolve in savannah but in wet woodlands (based on pollen analysis etc). The reason we have any fossilised skeletons at all is that they fell in *mud* when they died and were covered with thousands of layers of sediment. Bones simply don't fossilise under savannah conditions - they get scattered by scavengers, dry out, and crumble to dust.

At best the fossil tooth in the article is *hominid*, not human, most of that line did not result in species within the genus Homo. Notably, "Graecopithecus", mentioned in the article, is a genus which was not Homo, not human. Indeed the literature suggests doubt as to whether Graecopithecus is even hominid - it has some hominid-like features. Cf. 7 million years is well within the range for the last common ancestor of humans and chimps.

The article is not much more than click bait and not very informative. I expect a higher standard than this here..
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2017
Now, I am to unapologetically ask both of you, anyone else reading this article and especially the dumbass who edited and/or rewrote this article for this site
Yeah... dudester already made you look pretty stupid but let me just add that if you Google the excerpt you quoted you see that it is repeated verbatim on multiple other news sites. This is a news release as are most articles here.

So your post is nothing BUT stupid isn't it?

Questions, comments?
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2017
Bones simply don't fossilise under savannah conditions - they get scattered by scavengers, dry out, and crumble to dust
... So you're saying that savannahs are all grassland and don't include wet features like riverbeds, mud flats, marshes, bogs, floodplains, etc?
I expect a higher standard than this here
Making up science like you do is a pretty low standard.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2017
Wow equally millions of people are going to be very disappointed and many very heartened at this revelation. So many had relished Africa as the birth place while others did not. Now it seems maybe Africa was not the birthplace of man. A tooth there in Bulgaria while other fossils found through out the region are pretty convincing to the scientific community. This is not completely new theory as it is. It was floated in the 90's as well.
Da Schneib
2 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2017
Meh, seems that "corn" in Roman parlance (and much non-American parlance) doesn't refer to maize; it's any grain at all, and wherever wheat, rye, and barley came from, they came from grasses that were plentiful in the Bulgarian savanna timeframe. I parse this as a non-issue generated from the American definition of "corn."

As for the article, it seems pretty clear that a tooth and a jaw that fits it are pretty good evidence of a hominin that might not be from Africa and therefore might not fit the current "Out of Africa" paradigm of human evolution. We should probably discuss that instead of quibbling about terminology.
1.7 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2017
These 'Greeks' likely are precursors to Neanderthalers, and came originally frim Africa, migrated to Europe in previous interglacials by means, maybe of other routes open in a global low sea level regime from that glaciation before it all melted. There was probably a lot of back and forth between Europe and Africa and Mid-Asia. Modern Asiatics look very different from all the rest of the world's peoples....may have migrated earlier yet or sprang from a yet undiscovered precursor. Modern Asiatics according to legend came from a land of 'nine rivers'...which can only be in Egypt
5 / 5 (1) Jun 18, 2017
Lack of reading comprehension and an understanding of science pervades the above comments.

One tooth was tentatively dated to 7 mya. The article offers no explanation as to how - stratigraphy seems a likely answer, but if we're to base an entire new theory of human origin on such evidence, given the ongoing debate about findings in Africa, which are numerous and well studied ... this does NOT inspire confidence.

Why are there dozens of fossils showing a series of changes that were found in east Africa, while Bulgaria only offers a single tooth? Reasonable answers might include some words about the periodic Quarternary glaciation of the region. Unreasonable answers seem to me to be based in the desire to prove that today's white humans, who are Neanderthal hybrids, are in some way superior to the 100% humans found in sub-Saharan Africa. Theories are subject to disproof by counterexample; a simple inspection of the #MAGA hashtag on Twitter will handily slay white supremacist ideas.

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