Scientists Found the Tiniest Great Ape Ever—and It Could Change Human Evolution

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This Hominid Could be the Smallest Great Ape Everfranck metois - Getty Images
  • A recent study describes a new species of a hominid, or great ape, that was potentially only 22 pounds. That would make it the smallest hominid yet known.

  • Living during the Miocene some 11.6 million years ago, this hominid named Buronius manfredschmidi likely coexisted with another hominid, the bonobo-sized Danuvius guggenmosi.

  • If B. manfredschmidi is a new species, it’d be the first discovery that two great apes coexisted at the same time in Europe in the fossil record.

The taxonomic family Hominidae—also known as the Great Apes—includes us Homo sapiens, our close cousins (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas), and many of our past ancestors.

One of those ancestral family members is Danuvius guggenmosi, first described in 2019, who lived on the European continent some 11 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. This ape was likely the size of a bonobo, but with a lower body that was much more human-like. Now, a new study from the same research team that made the original discovery is giving D. guggenmosi another unique distinction: it’s the only known hominid that shared its habitat with a member of the same family in Europe.

This new potential species—described in a study published recently in the journal PLOS One and given the name Buronius manfredschmidi—wouldn’t have been a competitor. Rather, it displayed a different lifestyle that would have kept it from butting heads with D. guggenmosi.

Buronius was probably a small leaf-eater that preferred to live in trees,” Madelaine Bömhe, a professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany and study coauthor, told the Natural History Museum. “In contrast, Danuvius was likely an omnivore. It also lived in trees, but may have been able to come down and search a larger area for a variety of food sources.”

Identifying this new species hasn’t been easy. The current holotype consists of only two teeth and one patella (kneecap), all of which were pulled from the Hammerscmiede fossil site in Bavaria, Germany. However, even this limited information was enough to discern that the species was markedly different from D. guggenmosi, which is found in the same rock layer. By analyzing the teeth and the patella, the researchers concluded that B. manfredschmidi was likely an adept climber and munched on soft foods (probably leaves). This is good news, as D. guggenmosi’s more omnivorous diet means the two likely didn’t compete for resources.

Apart from helping scientists to understand the life of B. manfredschmidi, the teeth samples also helped identify the potentially new species in the first place.

“The morphology of the two known teeth of Buronius differ greatly from previously known fossil apes,” Bömhe told the Natural History Museum. “In particular, the pattern of enamel on the chewing surface of the teeth is very different, while they are significantly smaller than the teeth of all known crown apes.”

If it is truly a new species, B. manfredschmidi would be the first and only member of the extinct genus Buronius—at least, for now. However, not everyone is convinced that this small sample of fossils definitely points to a completely new species, and many believe that much more exploration and fossil evidence needs to be collected.

While many potential areas for finding that fossil evidence have been destroyed by mining, Bömhe is confident that more samples will be discovered at Hammerschmiede, as the fossil site has been preserved since 2020. The researchers also believe the reevaluation of other sites could point to similar evidence of a hominid cohabitation and provide enough evidence to officially add a new member to the Great Ape family.

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