Origin of Apes: Lehman College Researcher Joins International Team in Groundbreaking Discovery

February 26, 2014 | Lehman College

An international team of researchers, co-led by Professor William Harcourt-Smith, has discovered the remains of an ancient forest on Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya – evidence of the habitat of the early ape Proconsul.

The groundbreaking discovery includes the fossil of a single Proconsul specimen among geological deposits that also contained tree stump casts, calcified roots, and fossil leaves. Their findings – published in February 2014 in Nature Communications – show that Proconsul and its primate relative Dendropithecus inhabited “a widespread, dense, multistoried, closed canopy” forest. The fossils will help scientists understand the connection between ancient habitats and the emergence of ape lineages, including our own.

Professor Harcourt-Smith is co-director of the site, where he and colleagues have been prospecting for fossils since 2006.

“It’s a well-known locality, famous for Proconsul, but hadn’t been visited in ages,” says Dr. Harcourt-Smith, who also serves as a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History. “We wanted to go back and ultimately work out what the ancient environment was like back then, and the ecology of these early apes.”

“This is where the first apes emerged – where they thrived,” he says of Rusinga Island.

Obtaining a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Leakey Foundation, the team descended on Rusinga Island. The group included Baylor University geology professor Dan Peppe and geology doctoral student Lauren Michel, lead author of the article in Nature Communications.

“Our research findings provide direct evidence and confirm where the early ape lived about 18 to 20 million years ago,” said Dr. Peppe. “We now know that Proconsul lived in a closed-canopy, tropical seasonal forest set in a warm and relatively wet local climate.”

Read more about the project from Baylor University.

Dr. Harcourt-Smith says the project highlights the importance of inter-disciplinary work, and commented that “only by working with a diverse range of scientists can one really start to reconstruct the environments of our ancient ancestors.”