Temporal range: Miocene
Chororapithecus abyssinicus by kawekaweau-d11p4aq
Chororapithecus abyssinicus restored in a sketch sheet compared with a human
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Superfamily: Hominoidea
Family: Hominidae
Subfamily: Homininae
Tribe: Gorillini
Genus: Chororapithecus
Suwa et al., 2007
Species: C. abyssinicus
Binomial name
Chororapithecus abyssinicus
Suwa et al., 2007

Chororapithecus abyssinicus was an ape that lived about 10-10.5 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch. It is believed to be the earliest known species of gorilla. Its existence indicates that the last common ancestor between the human/chimpanzee lineage and gorillas may have lived greater than 10 to 11 million years ago, which is at least 2 million years earlier than the previously thought date of divergence of about 8 million years ago.

The only evidence found of this extinct ape is currently nine Fossilized teeth of at least three individuals, recovered from the Chorora Formation which runs along the southern Afar Depression of Ethiopia (the same place where the remains of Lucy were discovered in 1974). Analysis of eight molars (two of them fragmented) and a canine tooth show that their structure is partly similar to modern gorillas.

The researchers compared the make up of the teeth to other current and fossil apes, and concluded that the new ape fossils possibly were a species of gorilla which ate mostly high-fiber plants, and that the fossil species is likely a 'direct ancestor' of the gorillas that currently live in Africa.


Some fossil teeth of Chororapithecus that had been found

Alternatively, the idea that the finds are the remains of early hominins has not been ruled out entirely.

Previous research[]

Previous efforts to find fossils of great ape ancestors in Africa from between 12 and 8 million years ago had been largely unsuccessful. This absence led some to hypothesize that apes were absent from Africa during this time, and had recolonized Africa from areas in Asia where fossils from this time period are more plentiful. Molecular estimates that humans and gorillas diverged after 8 million years ago were consistent with this idea, in which an adaptive radiation might have occurred after a single species entered Africa and began to adapt to different environments.

Current fossils and research prior to this finding indicated that the evolutionary split between gorillas and humans occurred around 8 million years ago. The new fossils indicate that the split may have happened as long as 10.5 million years ago. It is thought that humans shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees as recently as 4 to 7 million years ago.

Possible implications[]

"Based on this fossil, that means the split is much earlier than has been anticipated by the molecular evidence. That means everything has to be put back," said researcher at the Rift Valley Research Service in Ethiopia and a co-author of the study, Berhane Asfaw. This refers to the calibration of the molecular clock, the average rate of fixation of nuetral mutations in the human and ape ancestors living in this environment over the past 10 million years.

Chororapithecus abyssinicus

The jaw of Chororapithecus abyssinicus

The human-gorilla split could only occur 10 million years ago if the mutations arose five times slower than previously thought, suggesting that other common ancestors of great apes likewise arose longer ago than believed.

Other expert opinions[]

Despite the finds, other researchers are not convinced that the conclusions are correct. Although the teeth are very similar to those of modern gorillas, they could have been shaped by parallel evolution of a genetically different species which consumed similar foods. "It is stretching the evidence to base a time scale for the evolution of the great apes on this new fossil. These structures appear on at least three independent lineages of apes, including gorillas, and they could relate to a dietary shift rather than indicating a new genetic trait," said Professor Peter Andrews at the Natural History Museum in London, UK, who also added, "but the fossil evidence for the evolution of our closest living relatives, the great apes, is almost non-existent."

Palaeoanthrapologist Jay Kelley of the University of Illinois at Chicago was also skeptical. He remained unconvinced that it was a gorilla, saying that more work would need to be done to determine where this specimen may fit in hominid evolution. He said he would be "very cautious" about realigning divergence dates between species based on this specimen.

Lab suwa 004

People digging up the fossils

These teeth are collectively indistinguishable from modern gorilla subspecies in dental size and represented proportions. This modest sample nevertheless exhibits substantial size variation, with molars at both the largest and smallest end of the modern gorilla ranges of variation.