Scientists have long known that a strange, now-extinct primate lived in modern-day Tuscany millions of years ago -- but did Oreopithecus bambolii swing in the trees, or did it walk on land with two legs like humans?
Previous research has suggested that Oreopithecus walked upright, but a new study, conducted by University of Texas scientists and set to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, offers a new take on the debate over just how humanlike Oreopithecus really was. The study suggests that the creature wasn't truly bipedal.
“While it’s certainly possible that Oreopithecus walked on two legs to some extent, as apes are known to employ short bouts of this activity, an increasing amount of anatomical evidence clearly demonstrates that it didn’t do so habitually,” study co-author Dr. Gabrielle A. Russo, an anthropologist at the university, said in a written statement.
Russo and her colleague examined an Oreopithecus fossil's lower spine -- specifically, the lumbar verterbrae (lower back) and sacrum -- to see if it had the anatomical features necessary for bipedalism. They compared Oreopithecus' features to those of modern apes, modern humans, and ancient human ancestors.
According to Russo, “Previous debate on the locomotor behavior of Oreopithecus had focused on the anatomy of the limbs and pelvis, but no one had reassessed the controversial claim that its lower back was human-like.”
While humans have a "lordotic" curvature in the lower spine specialized for distributing body weight as they walk upright, the two anthropologists determined the lower spine of Oreopithecus was more apelike.
Oreopithecus lived seven to nine million years ago during the late Miocene epoch and is classified as belonging to the Hominoidea superfamily, although its specific taxonomic classification within that family has been disputed.
Full fossil of Oreopithecus bambolii at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano in Italy.