Photo of the 17-million-year-old molar tooth of the hominoid from Engelswies. (Credit: Böhme)
Africa is regarded as the center of evolution of humans and their precursors. Yet long before modern humans left Africa some 125,000 years ago, their antecedents migrated from Africa to Eurasia many times, as is documented in the fossil record. How often, when and why hominoids went “out of Africa” is still a hotly debated field of intense research. Possibly, the first wave of emigration occurred 17 million years before the present, as documented by finds in the Swabian northern Alpine foreland basin, southwest of Sigmaringen.
Researchers from Tübingen successfully pinpointed the age of a molar tooth at 17 to 17.1 Ma, together with colleagues from Helsinki, Munich and Stuttgart. It is thus the oldest known Eurasian hominoid found to date. The results are now published in the Journal of Human Evolution. The owner of the tooth once inhabited a lakeside landscape with subtropical vegetation in a warm-humid climatic zone. Today, there is an abandoned quarry at the locality known among palaeontologists for its fossiliferous layers.
Prof. Dr. Madelaine Böhme of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology (HEP) at the Tübingen University combined different methods of dating of the rocks in which the molar tooth was found. Housed at the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, the find itself dates to June 24, 1973. It was discovered by the founder and then-director of the Geological-Palaeontological Institute in Mainz, Prof. Dr. Heinz Tobien, in the “Talsberg” quarry in Engelswies, Inzigkofen. Only in 2001 was the molar taken under scrutiny and determined as a hominoid fossil, albeit with some insecurity regarding its age.