New Egyptian Dinosaur Reveals Ancient Link Between Africa and Europe

This is a life reconstruction of the new titanosaurian dinosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae on a coastline in what is now the Western Desert of Egypt approximately 80 million years ago. Credit: Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

When it comes to the final days of the dinosaurs, Africa is something of a blank page. Fossils found in Africa from the Late Cretaceous, the time period from 100 to 66 million years ago, are few and far between. That means that the course of dinosaur evolution in Africa has largely remained a mystery. But in the Sahara Desert of Egypt, scientists have discovered a new species of dinosaur that helps fill in those gaps: Mansourasaurus shahinae, a school-bus-length, long-necked plant-eater with bony plates embedded in its skin.

The fossilized remains of Mansourasaurus were unearthed by an expedition undertaken by the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology (MUVP) initiative, an effort led by Leakey Foundation grantee Dr. Hesham Sallam of the Department of Geology at Mansoura University in Mansoura, Egypt. Sallam is the lead author of the paper published today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that names the new species. The field team included several of his students, many of whom–Ms. Iman El-Dawoudi, Ms. Sanaa El-Sayed, and Mrs. Sara Saber–also participated in the study of the new dinosaur. The creature’s name honors both Mansoura University and Ms. Mona Shahin for her integral role in developing the MUVP. According to Sallam, “The discovery and extraction of Mansourasaurus was such an amazing experience for the MUVP team. It was thrilling for my students to uncover bone after bone, as each new element we recovered helped to reveal who this giant dinosaur was.”

The left lower jaw bone, of the new titanosaurian dinosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae as it was found in rock of the Upper Cretaceous-aged (~80 million-year-old) Quseir Formation of the Dakhla Oasis, Egypt. Photo credit:
Hesham Sallam, Mansoura University

Mansourasaurus shahinae is a key new dinosaur species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African paleontology,” says Dr. Eric Gorscak, a postdoctoral research scientist at The Field Museum and a contributing author on the study. Gorscak, who began work on the project as a doctoral student at Ohio University, where his research focused on African dinosaurs, adds, “Africa remains a giant question mark in terms of land-dwelling animals at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Mansourasaurus helps us address longstanding questions about Africa’s fossil record and paleobiology–what animals were living there, and to what other species were these animals most closely related?”

This discovery was funded in part by a grant from The Leakey Foundation. Donate today and help fund the next big discovery!

Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils in Africa are hard to come by–much of the land where their fossils might be found is covered in lush vegetation, rather than the exposed rock of dinosaur treasure troves such as those in the Rocky Mountain region, the Gobi Desert, or Patagonia. The lack of a Late Cretaceous fossil record in Africa is frustrating for paleontologists since, at that time, the continents were undergoing massive geological and geographic changes.

During the earlier years of the dinosaurs, throughout much of the Triassic and Jurassic periods, all the continents were joined together as the supercontinent of Pangaea. During the Cretaceous Period, however, the continents began splitting apart and shifting towards the configuration we see today. Historically, it hasn’t been clear how well-connected Africa was to other Southern Hemisphere landmasses and Europe during this time–to what degree Africa’s animals may have been cut off from their neighbors and evolving on their own separate tracks. Mansourasaurus, as one of the few African dinosaurs known from this time period, helps to answer that question. By analyzing features of its bones, Sallam and his team determined that Mansourasaurus is more closely related to dinosaurs from Europe and Asia than it is to those found farther south in Africa or in South America. This, in turn, shows that at least some dinosaurs could move between Africa and Europe near the end of these animals’ reign. “Africa’s last dinosaurs weren’t completely isolated, contrary to what some have proposed in the past,” says Gorscak. “There were still connections to Europe.”

Skeletal reconstruction of Mansourasaurus shahinae from the Late Cretaceous of the Dakhla Oasis, Egypt. Bones shown in color are those that are preserved in the original fossil; other bones are based on those of closely related dinosaurs. Credit:
Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Mansourasaurus belongs to the Titanosauria, a group of sauropods (long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs) that were common throughout much of the world during the Cretaceous. Titanosaurs are famous for including the largest land animals known to science, such as Argentinosaurus, Dreadnoughtus, and Patagotitan. Mansourasaurus, however, was moderate-sized for a titanosaur, roughly the weight of an African bull elephant. Its skeleton is important in being the most complete dinosaur specimen so far discovered from the end of the Cretaceous in Africa, preserving parts of the skull, the lower jaw, neck and back vertebrae, ribs, most of the shoulder and forelimb, part of the hind foot, and pieces of dermal plates. Says study coauthor and dinosaur paleontologist Dr. Matt Lamanna of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, “When I first saw pics of the fossils, my jaw hit the floor. This was the Holy Grail–a well-preserved dinosaur from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs in Africa–that we paleontologists had been searching for for a long, long time.”

Also contributing to the Mansourasaurus research were experts on African paleontology from other institutions in Egypt and the US. MUVP student Iman El-Dawoudi played a particularly important role in the analysis of the new titanosaur, making numerous observations on its skeleton. “The combined effort of multiple institutions across the globe, not to mention the absolutely key role played by students on the project from the field, to the laboratory, to the final analysis and write-up of the results, exemplifies the collaborative nature of expeditionary sciences today,” notes Dr. Patrick O’Connor, study co-author and professor of anatomy at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Funding for the Mansourasaurus study was provided by grants from Mansoura University, the Jurassic Foundation, The Leakey Foundation, the National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The discovery of rare fossils like this sauropod dinosaur helps us understand how creatures moved across continents, and gives us a greater understanding of the evolutionary history of organisms in this region,” says Dena Smith, a program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences, which partially funded the laboratory portion of the research.

Scientific discoveries are often compared to finding the last missing puzzle piece to complete a picture; Gorscak says that since so little is known about African dinosaurs, Mansourasaurusis better likened to an earlier step in the puzzle-solving process. “It’s like finding an edge piece that you use to help figure out what the picture is, that you can build from. Maybe even a corner piece.”

“What’s exciting is that our team is just getting started. Now that we have a group of well-trained vertebrate paleontologists here in Egypt, with easy access to important fossil sites, we expect the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come,” says Sallam.

From the Field: Hilary Duke, Kenya

Hilary Duke was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant in the fall of 2016 for her project entitled “Taking shape: Investigating the earliest Acheulean at Kokiselei, Kenya (1.8-1.76Ma).” Last year we shared a summary of her work. Here she updates us on her progress!  

Hilary Duke at the National Museums of Kenya (photo credit Felipe Torres)

My fieldwork takes place in the city of Nairobi, Kenya at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). The NMK holds hundreds of archaeological collections from excavations that have taken place all across the country. Some of these collections were excavated decades ago, but they hold enormous potential for current paleoanthropological research.

This was my final visit to the NMK for my dissertation archaeological data collection, following two prior trips in 2014 and 2016. This time, I spent 14 weeks analyzing thousands of lithic artefacts from three separate sites that were excavated in the Kokiselei Site Complex, west of the Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The West Turkana Archaeological Project excavated three main sites in the Kokiselei Site Complex (KS) during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. My research focused on these three sites: KS4, KS5, and KS6 (1.8-1.76 Ma). A few publications were released by WTAP researchers describing artefactual highlights from two of these assemblages (KS4 and KS5) (Texier et al. 2006; Lepre et al. 2011). The most well-known publication presented the world’s earliest known Acheulean artefacts from Kokiselei 4 dated to 1.76 million years ago (Ma) (Lepre et al. 2011).

photo credit: Sonia Harmand

I had a fairly good idea of the types of artefacts that I would encounter in these assemblages from my two prior visits and the early WTAP publications, but was still pleasantly surprised with the vast variability in these collections. All of the Kokiselei assemblages were not yet fully described in prior publications, so my research this past summer finally provided a clear picture of how variability in lithic production at Kokiselei changed (or stayed the same) throughout the sequence. These diachronic patterns seem to be more complex than simply the introduction of new artefact types (e.g., handaxes) in Kokiselei 4. Rather, my data demonstrates that the production of handaxes, and all other lithic artefacts, involved multiple knapping strategies. The diversity in these methods and techniques suggests that Early Pleistocene hominins (such as Homo ergaster/erectus) had a wide range of strategies in their knapping repertoires, and that they could apply these flexibly in different situations.

photo credit: Nicholas Taylor

Solo museum studies can be lonesome (no matter how interesting the artefacts are), so I was thrilled when WTAP director and dissertation committee member Prof. Sonia Harmand (Stony Brook University, NY and the CNRS, Paris), former director Hélène Roche (CNRS, Paris), and team member Dr. Nicholas Taylor (Stony Brook University, NY) joined me at the NMK in July. As they worked on their own projects, we shared ideas and kept each other motivated. I am grateful to have had the rare opportunity to work directly with my mentors for part of my dissertation data collection. Their encouragement and expertise gave me the energy I needed for that last push of data collection – what a breath of fresh air!

With my complete dataset in hand, I am looking forward to diving deeper into statistical analyses to explore which technological traits (e.g., stone raw material type, size, shape, etc.) are driving variability in the assemblages, and further, to better understand how hominin knapping strategies might have changed through time in the Kokiselei sequence.

References

Lepre, C. J., Roche, H., Kent, D. V., Harmand, S., Quinn, R. L., Brugal, J. P., … & Feibel, C. S.   (2011). An earlier origin for the Acheulian. Nature, 477(7362), 82-85.

Texier P.-J., Roche H., Harmand S. (2006). Kokiselei 5, Formation de Nachukui, West Turkana   (Kenya): Un témoignage de la variabilité ou de l’évolution des comportements  techniques au Pléistocène ancien?BAR International Series 1522:11–22.

Earliest Modern Human Outside of Africa Unearthed in Israel

A jawbone complete with teeth recently discovered at Israel’s Misliya cave has now been dated to 177,000-194,000 years ago. The finding indicates that modern humans were present in the Levant at least 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Reconstruced maxilla from microCT images. Credit: Gerhard Weber, University of Vienna, Austria

“This finding — that early modern humans were present outside of Africa earlier than commonly believed — completely changes our view on modern human dispersal and the history of modern human evolution,” says Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. Hershkovitz is a Leakey Foundation grantee who led the international team of anthropologists who conducted the study in collaboration with Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. The research, funded in part by The Leakey Foundation, was recently published in the journal Science.

The common consensus of anthropologists has been that modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 160,000-200,000 years ago, based on fossils found in Ethiopia, and that modern humans evolved in Africa and started migrating out of Africa around 100,000 years ago.

The research team discovered the fossil, an adult upper jawbone with several teeth, at the Misliya cave in Israel, one of several prehistoric cave sites located on Mount Carmel. The scientists applied various dating techniques to the fossil to determine that the jawbone is at least 170,000 years old. They also analyzed the remains using microCT scans and 3D virtual models to compare it with other hominin fossils discovered in parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Turning back the clock

“But if the fossil at Misliya dates to roughly 170,000-190,000 years ago, the entire narrative of the evolution of Homo sapiens must be pushed back by at least 100,000-200,000 years,” Prof. Hershkovitz says. “In other words, if modern humans started traveling out of Africa some 200,000 years ago, it follows that they must have originated in Africa at least 300,000-500,000 years ago.”

Until now, the earliest remains of modern human found outside of Africa, at the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel, were dated to 90,000-120,000 years ago.

“Our research makes sense of many recent anthropological and genetic finds,” Prof. Hershkovitz says. “About a year ago, scientists reported finding the remains of modern humans in China dating to about 80,000-100,000 years ago. This suggested that their migration occurred earlier than previously thought, but until our discovery at Misliya, we could not explain it.

“Numerous different pieces of the puzzle — the occurrence of the earliest modern human in Misliya, evidence of genetic mixture between Neanderthals and humans, modern humans in China — now fall into place,” he observes.

The Middle East was a major corridor for hominin migrations, occupied at different times by both modern humans and Neanderthals. The new discovery at Misliya suggests an earlier demographic replacement or genetic admixture with local populations than previously thought.

“All of the anatomical details in the Misliya fossil are fully consistent with modern humans, but some features resemble those found in the remains of Neanderthals and other human groups. This suggests that while Africa was the origin of our species, some of our traits must have evolved or been acquired outside of Africa,” says Prof. Hershkovitz.

According to Prof. Weinstein-Evron, the inhabitants of Misliya cave were capable hunters of large game species such as aurochs, Persian fallow deer and gazelles, routinely used fire, made a wide use of plants and produced an Early Middle Paleolithic stone tool kit, employing sophisticated innovative techniques similar to those found with the earliest modern humans in Africa. The association of the Misliya maxilla with such evolved technologies in the Levant suggests that their emergence is linked to the appearance of Homo sapiens in the region.

Leakey Foundation supporters made this discovery possible. Give today and help fund the next big discovery.


*Article from materials provided by the American Friends of Tel Aviv University.

DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8369

Fossil Jawbone From Israel is the Oldest Modern Human Found Outside Africa

File 20180124 107946 166xcdh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Fossilized teeth from a modern human who lived in Israel close to 200,000 years ago. Israel Hershkovitz, Tel Aviv University, CC BY-ND

Rolf Quam, Binghamton University, State University of New York

New fossil finds over the past few years have been forcing anthropologists to reexamine our evolutionary path to becoming human. Now the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside the continent of Africa is pushing back the date for when our ancestors left Africa.

The fossil, an upper left jawbone with most of the teeth attached, comes from Misliya Cave in Israel and dates to 177,000-194,000 years ago. This is considerably older than any other remains from our own species, Homo sapiens, ever discovered outside of Africa, and it coincides with several other recent studies that are changing the view on our evolutionary origins and migration throughout the Old World.

African origins, then spreading from there

The earliest humans, referred to as hominins by anthropologists, lived around 6-7 million years ago in Africa. These early evolutionary ancestors are recognized as belonging to the human family mainly because their bones reveal clear signs of bipedalism: They walked on two feet. It was not until around 2 million years ago that human ancestors first migrated out of Africa and spread throughout the Old World.

Up until recently, anthropologists generally held that Homo sapiens first appeared around 200,000 years ago, in Africa. This was based on findings from genetic studies as well as fossil discoveries. Two sites in Ethiopia, Herto and Omo Kibish, have yielded early Homo sapiens fossils dated to between 160,000-195,000 years ago.

Early modern human fossils from Morocco are older than the new find from Misliya, which is similar in age to fossils from Ethiopia. Overlaid on the map are a 3-D virtual reconstruction of the Misliya-1 jawbone and several Early Middle Paleolithic stone tools also found in the cave. Rolf Quam, Binghamton University.

But in June of 2017, researchers dated fossils from the site of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco to around 315,000 years ago and attributed them to an early phase of Homo sapiens evolution. This unexpectedly early date pushed back the origin of our species by over 100,000 years.

Until recently, the earliest human fossils from our own species discovered outside of Africa dated to around 90,000-120,000 years ago. Two cave sites in Israel – Qafzeh and Skhul – have yielded numerous skeletons of early modern humans. The age of these sites would suggest that our species was restricted to Africa for as long as 200,000 years before migrating out of the continent. Other sites with Homo sapiens fossils from Asia and Europe are generally younger than the finds from the Middle East.

Now an international research team, of which I was a member, has reported finding an early modern human fossil at Misliya Cave in Israel dating as far back as 177,000-194,000 years ago. This date pushes back our species’ exodus from Africa by over 50,000 years.

Misliya Cave is part of a series of prehistoric cave sites located along the western slopes of Mount Carmel, Israel. Mina Weinstein-Evron, Haifa University, CC BY-ND

High-tech analysis of ancient remains

The Misliya fossil is just part of one individual’s jawbone. To understand the significance of the find, we needed to be sure about when this individual lived and also what species they belonged to.

To start with, the stone tools associated with the fossil, of a type known as the Early Middle Paleolithic, indicated a considerable antiquity for the specimen. Similar tool kits from other sites in the Middle East generally date to older than 160,000 years ago. To establish the jawbone’s age more precisely, several independent dating techniques were applied to the fossil itself as well as the stone tools and sediments at the site. The results came back with ages that ranged between 177,000-194,000 years ago.

3-D reconstruction of the Misliya jawbone.

To diagnose which species the Misliya fossil might represent, we studied the original fossil using both traditional anthropological approaches as well as the latest technological advances. We micro-CT scanned and made 3-D virtual models of the specimen to visualize the internal structures of the teeth and quantify their shapes more precisely. The results of these analyses demonstrated very clearly that the Misliya fossil is a member of our own species.

All of the anatomical features in the Misliya fossil are consistent with it being a modern human, just like us. There is nothing in the fossil that would rule it out as a Homo sapiens. And some features in the Misliya fossil’s anterior teeth seem only to occur in Homo sapiens.

A close-up view, showing details of the crown topography and dental features. Gerhard Weber, University of Vienna, CC BY-ND

Our study found these teeth lack several features that are found in earlier human species, including the Neanderthals. One of these characteristics is a thickening of the tooth crown along the edges on the inside surface of the incisor and canine. Anthropologists call this trait shoveling. We see shoveling on the teeth of previous species of hominins from before modern humans evolved. But we didn’t see it in the teeth from Misliya, supporting the idea that this jaw is from a Homo sapiens individual. Today some modern human populations actually do have shoveling on their teeth, while others do not; but in the fossil record, the only species that does not show shoveling is Homo sapiens.

Another trait we looked for is a small cusp at the base of the tooth crown on the inside surface of the incisor and canine. This feature is commonly seen in Neanderthals, but is absent in the Misliya fossil.

It’s the absence of these two dental features in the Misliya fossil, together with information from the other teeth and the jawbone itself, that tells us it came from a Homo sapiens.

Fitting more pieces into the puzzle

The findings at Misliya coincide with a recent genetic study that offered tantalizing evidence for the influx of genetic material into the Neanderthal gene pool from Africa. The researchers relied on ancient mitochondrial DNA extracted from a Neanderthal femur (leg bone) discovered in Germany. The African species involved was not clear, but the older dates for the earliest Homo sapiens fossils at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco make it clear that modern humans were already present in Africa at this time. These genetic results suggest the possibility of an earlier modern human migration out of Africa – at least as far back as 220,000 years ago and probably earlier.

While the Misliya fossil is younger than this, it provides the first fossil evidence confirming that modern humans left Africa considerably earlier than previously believed. This series of recent studies and discoveries from disparate sources are providing new insights into our own origins and dispersal around the globe.

Rolf Quam, Leakey Foundation Grantee, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


This research was funded in part by The Leakey Foundation. You can help fund the next big discovery! Donate today!


DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8369

Mandible Reveals the Complexity of Neanderthal Origins

A team of scientists from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), led by José María Bermúdez de Castro, together with the French researcher Amélie Vialet from the Natural History Museum in Paris has published a paper in the journal PLOS ONE on the Middle Pleistocene Montmaurin-La Niche mandible, which reveals the complexity of the origin of the Neanderthals.

Upper view of the Montmaurin-LN mandible

This mandible was found by Raoul Cammas on June 18, 1949, in the La Niche cave in France. The site also contained stone tools and fossil remains of different species of canids, equids, and ursids which helped scientists determine the age of the mandible.

Because of the presumed age of this mandible, between 200,000 and 240,000 years, and its close morphological similarity to the mandible of European Neanderthals, particularly in the teeth, researchers had considered it to be a Neanderthal mandible. But when mathematical techniques were applied to the study of a wide variety of mandibles, including those of a group of recent African ones, results show that this mandible is more in line with the most archaic specimens from Europe, including those from Dmanisi.

“We find here an archaic mandible, and dental pieces which taxonomically are indisputably Neanderthal, which helps to support the hypothesis that the Neanderthal lineage did not evolve linearly but in mosaic,” explains Bermúdez de Castro.

Comparative studies

Considered for two decades to be the oldest human fossil found in France, the mandible has formed part of different comparative studies, and the description published by G. Billy and Henri V. Vallois in 1977 stands out. That work was undertaken more than 40 years ago in the context of what was then known and of the theories then current on the colonization of the European continent.

However, human evolution in Europe was undoubtedly more complex than was thought only a couple of decades ago, as is explained in this paper entitled A reassessment of the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible (Haute Garonne, France) in the context of European Pleistocene human evolution, in which Mario Modesto, María Martinón-Torres and Marina Martínez de Pinillos also participated.

The possibility that there could have coexisted at least two hominin lineages and that interbreeding, prolonged periods of isolation, genetic drift and other processes were habitual in the Middle Pleistocene in Europe is gaining momentum. While at the same time linear hypotheses such as “accretion” are losing ground.

“The appearance of the classic Neanderthals in the Late Pleistocene is a question by no means finally settled. There remain many open questions, and the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible now joins the list of X-files”, concludes Bermúdez de Castro.


This research was funded in part by The Leakey Foundation and the personal support of Leakey Foundation Board Chairman Mr. Gordon Getty and Leakey Foundation Fellow Dub Crook.

Citation: Vialet A, Modesto-Mata M, Martinón-Torres M, Martínez de Pinillos M, Bermúdez de Castro J-M (2018) A reassessment of the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible (Haute Garonne, France) in the context of European Pleistocene human evolution. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0189714. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0189714