Dryopithecus::overview23 Jan 2005
Today, the only non-human primate native to Europe is the Barbary macaque, which has extended its North African range to a small area including Gibraltar, on the southern coast of Iberia. The geographic ranges of living apes do not extend north of the tropics. Thus, it may be surprising that once Europe was the home to a considerable diversity of apes. With the warmer and wetter climate of the Miocene, Europe was an ideal habitat for early hominoids, and they extended across the continent from Spain to Turkey, as far north as Paris. What may be even more surprising than the great productivity of Europe for paleontologists seeking Miocene apes is that Europe possibly was the principal center of their evolution and home of the common ancestors of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas.
For the background to human evolution, the most important European fossil ape is Dryopithecus. The original European ape, Dryopithecus fontani was discovered in France in the 1850s. Among the first evidence for ancient primate evolution, these fossil remains have been joined in recent years by newer fossils excavated from Spain, Hungary, and as far east as the Caucasus. These newer sites have extended the sample of Dryopithecus to include relatively complete crania and a diversity of postcranial elements. All remains date to between 13 million and 10 million years ago, likely after the common ancestor of the Asian and African ape clades. The features of the cranial material of Dryopithecus are generally more similar to living African apes than to orangutans (Kordos and Begun, 2001), although fossil Sivapithecus and Dryopithecus are very similar to each other.
The initial dental discoveries of Dryopithecus identified it as a fossil ape on the basis of the pattern of cusps and grooves on its molar teeth, which is similar to the great apes and humans. With grooves between the cusps arranged in the form of a Y, this pattern is often called the Y-5 dental pattern. In addition to the phylogenetic significance of the molars, their form probably indicates that the basic dietary niche of more recent apes arose at their origin and initial radiation.
Other features link Dryopithecus to the living apes. The elbow joint was capable of a full range of extension, which is not possible in quadrupeds like monkeys. The face was downward-directed like living chimpanzees and gorillas, called klinorhynch, unlike orangutans and Sivapithecus (Begun, 2003). The tear ducts opened substantially anteriorly, with a relatively wide interorbital pillar, again like African apes and unlike orangutans. These features were probably the ancestral condition for the great apes, with the Asian apes being derived, so they do not necessarily show that Dryopithecus was ancestral to African apes and humans. Nevertheless, they illustrate the presence of almost every component of the ape anatomy in these Late Miocene fossils, which set the stage for the later rise of the hominids.