Human ancestors may have walked upright 12 million years ago — much earlier than previously thought, study says

Scientists had previously believed the upright posture we have today originated six million years ago in Africa.

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But the fossils of a previously unknown primate named Danuvius, discovered in southern Germany, suggest apes were displaying the human-like characteristics long before then.

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The team, led by Madelaine Böhme from the University of Tübingen, worked in a clay pit in Bavaria, where they excavated more than 15,000 vertebrate bones.

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Remains of at least four individual primates were found, and the most complete skeleton — of a male Danuvius — is similar in size and shape to modern-day bonobos. His preserved limb, finger and toe bones helped the scientists reconstruct how he moved in his environment.

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“For the first time, we were able to investigate several functionally important joints, including the elbow, hip, knee and ankle, in a single fossil skeleton of this age,” Böhme said in a press release. “It was astonishing for us to realize how similar certain bones are to humans, as opposed to great apes.”

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“The finds in southern Germany are a milestone in paleoanthropology, because they raise fundamental questions about our previous understanding of the evolution of the great apes and humans,” she added.

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The findings, published in the journal Nature, suggest Danuvius could walk on two legs and could also climb like an ape. His spine had an S-shaped curve which held the rest of the body upright while he stood on two feet.

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“In contrast to later hominins, Danuvius had a powerful, opposable big toe, which enabled it to grasp large and small branches securely,” said Nikolai Spassov of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, who contributed to the study.

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Danuvius stood about a meter (3.3 feet) in height and weighed less than most apes today. Males measured at around 31 kilos (68 pounds), and females at about 18 kilos (40 pounds).

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“The ribcage was broad and flat, and the lower back was elongated; this helped to position the center of gravity over extended hips, knees and flat feet, as in bipeds,” said a press release from the University of Tübingen.

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Earlier this year scientists found that early humans were still swinging from trees two million years ago after confirming a set of fossils found in South Africa represents a “missing link” in humanity’s family tree.

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