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A 20-million-year-old ape skull was discovered in northeastern Uganda, Discovery News reported today.

The Ugandan and French paleontologists think it can shed light on East Africa’s evolutionary history.

The skull belongs to a remote cousin of today’s great apes, called the Ugandapithecus Major, and is the first skull ever found for this species named in 1950 .

Paleontologists discovered it while they were searching for fossils in an extinct volcano in Karamoja that erupted 20 million years ago, and preserved the fossil. The Daily Monitor reported that it’s the earliest modern-sized ape skull ever found.

Oldesk Skull Discovered in KaramojaA joint team of French and Uganda paleontologists discovered this great exploration in the country’s Karamoja region, in the Northeast. Although it’s still early days in terms of what we can learn about this primate, we do know that it was a tree-climbing herbivore, it was about as big as a chimpanzee but had a smaller brain, and it was about ten years old when it died all those eons ago.

Paleontologist Martin Pickford commented on his team’s discovery:

“This is the first time that the complete skull of an ape of this age has been found … it is a highly important fossil and it will certainly put Uganda on the map in terms of the scientific world.”

To put the primate’s age into some perspective, twenty million years ago long predates when our hominid ancestors became distinct from chimpanzees. Indeed, this primate appears to have lived right in the middle between the divergence of apes from Old World monkeys 25 million years ago, and the split of great apes (humans, chimps, gorillas, orangutans) from lesser apes like gibbons about 15 million years ago.

Agnes Akiror, the state minister for tourism, said in a press conference that the discovery is of “great significance to our country and to all paleontological researchers.”

A cast of the skull will be displayed at a new museum in Moroto that will open in a few months. The skull will be sent to Paris for further study, and then returned to Uganda for preservation in a vault, according to the paleontologist team.

Scientists believe the ape was a tree-climbing herbivore that died at the age of ten, BBC News reported. This is our first, somewhat blurry look at Ugandapithecus major, a primate that lived in ancient Uganda 20 million years ago. It’s one of the oldest primate fossils ever found, and it could hold crucial information about our evolutionary past.

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