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News/Press releases

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April 02, 2020: Multiple hominin genera were present in South Africa two million years ago
© La Trobe University

New fossils indicate that Homo erectus existed earlier than previously thought, at a time when also Australopithecus and Paranthropus were around close-by

In a new paper published in Science this week, an international team of scientists including a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig described, dated and contextualized new hominin fossils from Drimolen Main Quarry in South Africa. A two-million-year-old partial neurocranium shows that Homo erectus existed 100,000 to 200,000 years earlier than thought and shared the landscape in this region of South Africa with two other types of hominins – Australopithecus sediba and Paranthropus robustus.

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April 01, 2020: Lucy had an ape-like brain
© Philipp Gunz, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Three million year old brain imprints show that Australopithecus afarensis infants may have had a long dependence on caregivers

A new study led by paleoanthropologists Philipp Gunz and Simon Neubauer from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reveals that Lucy’s species Australopithecus afarensis had an ape-like brain. However, the protracted brain growth suggests that – as is the case in humans – infants may have had a long dependence on caregivers.

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March 30, 2020: Human ancestors may have regularly climbed trees
© Matthew Skinner

A new study has found evidence that human ancestors as recent as two million years ago may have regularly climbed trees

Walking on two legs has long been a defining feature to differentiate modern humans, as well as extinct species on our lineage, from our closest living ape relatives: chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. This new research, based on analysis of fossil leg bones, provides evidence that a hominin species - believed to be either Paranthropus robustus or early Homo - regularly adopted highly flexed hip joints; a posture that in other non-human apes is associated with climbing trees.

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Original publication

February 17, 2020: Reconstructing the diet of fossil vertebrates
© Nicolas Bourgon

The ratio of special zinc isotopes in dental enamel provides information about the diet of mammals in prehistoric times

Paleodietary studies of the fossil record are impeded by a lack of reliable and unequivocal tracers, currently making it impossible to determine the exact timing of dietary changes or, often, even the species involved. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz have now tested a new method, the isotope analysis of zinc isotopes from the tooth enamel of fossil mammals. They found this method to be well suited to expand our knowledge about the diets of fossil humans and other Pleistocene mammals. The method proves especially useful when it comes to differentiating whether prehistoric mammals had mainly animal or plant based food on the menu.

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Original publication

February 14, 2020: Researchers were not right about left brains
© Simon Neubauer, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Brain imprints on cranial bones from great apes and humans refute the long-held notion that the human pattern of brain asymmetry is unique

The left and right side of the brain are involved in different tasks. This functional lateralization and associated brain asymmetry are well documented in humans, but little is known about brain asymmetry in our closest living relatives, the great apes. Using endocasts (imprints of the brain on cranial bones), scientists now challenge the long-held notion that the human pattern of brain asymmetry is unique. They found the same asymmetry pattern in chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. However, humans were the most variable in this pattern. This suggests that lateralized, uniquely human cognitive abilities, such as language, evolved by adapting a presumably ancestral asymmetry pattern.

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Original publication

February 06, 2020: Japan Prize 2020 goes to Svante Pääbo
© Karsten Möbius

Geneticist Svante Pääbo honoured for his work into human origins

Svante Pääbo, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is the founder of palaeogenetics, a research discipline concerned with the analysis of genetic samples from fossils and prehistoric finds. Which of the genetic changes that occurred in the course of evolutionary history make up modern man is what Pääbo studies by comparing the DNA sequences of modern-day humans, Neanderthals and other human ancestors. His groundbreaking research has now earned him the Japan Prize, which is endowed with mit 50 million Yen (approx. 490,000 euros).

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January 07, 2020: The growing pains of orphan chimpanzees
© Liran Samuni

Mothers may be shaping pre-adult growth and offspring muscle mass even without direct provisioning

Like humans, young chimpanzees associate with their mothers all the way into adulthood. Unlike in humans, offspring no longer depend on maternal food sharing beyond the weaning age. Therefore, the reasons for and consequences of these years of post-weaning mother-offspring associations are unclear. Using long-term behavioural and hormonal data from wild chimpanzees in the Taï Forest, Côte d’Ivoire, researchers from the Taï Chimpanzee Project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, have revealed that mothers may be shaping pre-adult growth and offspring muscle mass even without direct provisioning. We compared growth of young chimpanzees with a mother until adulthood compared to those who had experienced maternal loss after weaning.

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January 03, 2020: Less offspring due to territorial conflicts
© Liran Samuni

Female chimpanzees’ reproductive success decreases in times of strong territorial conflict with other groups

Territorial conflicts can turn violent in humans and chimpanzees, two extremely territorial species. An international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has studied the effects of territoriality on female reproductive success in wild Western chimpanzees and found that high neighbor pressure at times when females typically reproduce can lead to reproductive delays with longer intervals between births. Having many males in a group, however, is of advantage and speeds up reproduction.

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Original publication