Jul 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:17 AM EDT

How a Beaked Whale Fossil May Reveal Origins of Humanities First Steps

Mar 17, 2015 05:11 PM EDT

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In a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers with the University of Potsdam in Germany say that they may have found the origin of man's first steps on land with the rediscovery of a 17 million year old fossil of a beaked whale once native to East Africa. The fossil, which was original unearthed in 1964, but lost for nearly half a century after the skull was misplaced, is the oldest known fossil of a beaked whale and strongly suggests an exact time for when the East African plateau was once turned into a savannah.

The whale, known as Ziphiidae, has helped researchers better pinpoint the origins of when ancient ancestors to modern humans descended from the trees that they lived in and began walking on the area turned to grasslands below. And though the whale fossil may predate the early movements of humans, researchers now estimate that the East African plateau uplift that made early man's walk on land possible likely occurred between 17 million and 13.5 million years ago.

"It's more or less the story about the bipedalism" postdoctoral researcher involved with the study Henry Wichura says. "With the whale, everything started."

Though the fossil remained unstudied for decades, its rediscovery has helped point towards an important epoch in human history, and researchers say that this is what archaeology is all about. Professor of Geology, Frank Brown, with the University of Utah who was not involved with the study, says that professional and amateur paleontologists share a unique ability to help pinpoint important moments in our world's history. And even a fossil that sits in a lab for years may hold answers that researchers then were not able to reveal.

"Even single specimens of organisms tell us a great deal about the history of the Earth, and they sometimes appear in surprising cases" Brown says. "This is one such case."

But while the whale may have revealed a long-lost secret of when man first started to walk on two-feet, the skull of the beaked whale holds many secrets that continue to confound researchers. As beaked whales were once known as deep-sea divers that live in the open ocean, researchers were shocked to find the fossil 460 miles inland from the present-day East African coast, at an elevation of 2,100 feet above sea level. And the cause of death, too, still remains unclear. 

Wichura and his fellow researchers are hopeful that continued studies of the fossil may reveal the answers that they seek, but for now they are positing the most likely situation, and are waiting on the rest.

"We came to the idea that it used a large river system, because the whale had been found in lake sediments which are [mixed with] river sediments" Wichura says. "So we can say that it died in a kind of river-lake environment."

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