The return of our distant cousin - Ugandapithecus

Saturday August 11 2012

Paleontologist Martin Pickford holds replicas of the remains of the Ugandapithecus, a skull that was discovered in July, 2011 in Karamoja.

Paleontologist Martin Pickford holds replicas of the remains of the Ugandapithecus, a skull that was discovered in July, 2011 in Karamoja. The fossils belong to a male which died at a late adolescent stage about 28 to 30 million years ago. PHOTO AFP 

By John K. Abimanyi

Kampala

For the devoutly religious, there is no doubt that humankind, in its current form, is a finished product of God’s creation. But sections of science disagree, with a detailed explanation of the evolution of the species to back their views. And now, that clash of world views takes the form of a 20-million-year-old skull of an ape, the Ugandapithecus Major, that was discovered by a team led by French scientists in Karamoja last year.

The fossils, fresh from a year-long process of cleaning, studying and construction of copies in laboratories in France, has been returned to Uganda and was unveiled at the Uganda Museum on Thursday.

The skull, together with two reconstructed models, will be displayed for public viewing at the museum, starting next week. The fossils’ age alone, would thus conflict with say the Biblical creation account that is set some 6,000 years ago.

While in France, the team of scientists, led by Prof. Brigette Senut and Dr Martin Pickford, used X-ray scanners to study its internal structure and come up with a shape. Models of the original skull were then constructed, leaving the original parts of the fossils intact.

Its parts have now been arranged in order, and kept in a glass-cased display box at the museum. Two model skulls sit on either side of the original fossils, with a complete skull, as close to accurate as possible as the modellers could get it.

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From the front, the original fossils show a line up of four incisor-like teeth, just like in humans. And then, two sharp canines prominently protrude from the sides, again, just like in humans.

The top of its skull, the frontal and parietal plates, are gone, disintegrated into pieces and the scientists say these were deformed during fossilisation by animals burrowing through the soil. These pieces have been kept separately as it is nearly impossible to replicate an accurate shape of skull.

Prof. Senut says the Ugandapithecus sheds light on the shapes of species that came before humans and how they lived. For instance, it shows that even as far back as 20 million years ago, apes had an erect skeleton, one that enabled them to say climb trees and walk.

The scientists are, however, unable to place the Ugandapithecus in a cycle of evolution yet, in terms of what species it could have evolved from and what it evolved into.
Prof. Senut says modern apes and ancestors of humans split around 10 million years ago, and there is an information vacuum between then and 20 million years ago to tell what the Ugandapithecus could have evolved to, and, another information vacuum of between 21 and 31 million years ago, for what it could have evolved from.

Karamoja, and East Africa in general, are ripe deposits for fossils because of many depositions caused by volcanoes and lakes, the scientists say. And excavation work continues in search for more fossils.

From next week, as Ugandans start to visit the Ugandapithecus, there is no doubt that relating the argument that this fossil could be our ancestor, to the religious tales of creation that most people believe in, will form quite a dilemma for many.

jabimanyi@ug.nationmedia.com

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