Transforming Ape Society into Human Society

The ape society from which humans evolved lived some 5 million years ago somewhere in equatorial Africa. No fossil remains of these ancestral apes have yet been identified with certainty. Yet much can be inferred about them through the study of the two other living species descended from them, chimpanzees and their cousins the bonobos. There are several reasons to suppose that the ancestral apes were very chimplike—an important assumption, if true, because it means that today's chimpanzees serve as a reasonably close surrogate for them. One is that gorillas, which split off from the ape lineage before the human-chimp split, are themselves rather chimplike, suggesting that so too was the lineage that led to the human-chimp ancestor. Another is that the earliest fossils on the human side of the chimp-human split are quite hard to distinguish from chimpanzees. A third reason is that the chimps of west and east Africa are very similar to each other, in both looks and behavior, despite having split apart 1.5 million years ago. Given that they have changed hardly at all in the last 1.5 million years, they may well have been just as conservative in the previous 3.5 million years. The likely reason for this lack of change is that chimps still live mostly in forest, as did the joint ancestor, whereas the human lineage at some early stage left its forest home and took its chances in the open woodland, adapting to a quite different set of challenges. Chimps could stay much as they were because they were never under great evolutionary pressure to adapt to new environments.

If no fossils of the joint ancestor have yet been found, how can anyone know when it lived? The answer comes from genetics. By estimating the number of differences between corresponding stretches of DNA in the great apes and people, geneticists can construct a family tree whose branches are proportional in length to the evolutionary distances between the various species. The tree implies that the split between chimps and people occurred just over 5 million years ago (the most recent estimate suggests between 4.6 and 6.2 million years ago).a 3 Genetic comparison also indicates why it is that chimps are the closest living species to humans. The chimp branches show four living subdivisions—and a fifth if the bonobo is counted—whereas the human branch is unnaturally straight, as if all competing human lines had fallen extinct, perhaps because they were pruned away by members of the one surviving lineage.4

The estimate of 5 million years for the chimp-human divergence fits quite well with a salient event in the earth's climatic history. Global climate cooled between 10 and 5 million years ago, with the period from 6.5 to 5 million years being particularly harsh. Water was locked up in massive glaciers, and sea level fell so low that the Mediterranean sea was repeatedly drained, depriving Africa of a source of moisture. In the dry, cold climate, the equatorial forests shrank and in places fragmented into woodland.5 In such a habitat, with open canopy and large spaces between trees, forest tree dwellers would have had to spend more time on the ground, at considerably greater risk from large predators. These cruel years placed such stress on the forest apes that many went extinct.

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