20 million - year-old skull of ancient ape is back in Uganda after 12 months of analysis and reconstruction in France
On August 9, Ugandapithecus major, the skull of the fossil ape that was discovered in Karamoja a year ago, completed a return journey of more than 11,000 kilometers to Uganda from Paris in France, where scientists scrutinised it and eventually reconstructed it.
The ancient ape species - believed to have lived in Uganda 20 million years ago – the oldest to be found so far, was found at Napak, an extinct volcano in Karamoja, by a team of researchers from Uganda and France on July 18 last year.
Prof. Martin Pickford and his colleague Prof. Brigette Senut, who discovered the fossils, highlighted it as a major breakthrough after decades of excavation, and consequently airlifted it to Paris for specialised study and reconstruction.
Speaking at the handover of the fossil to the Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage Minister Ephraim Kamuntu at the Uganda Museum, Pickford described the fossil as a tremendous contribution to the archeological and paleontological body of knowledge worldwide.
In France, the skull underwent highly specialised scientific cleaning, scrutiny, documentation and reconstruction. Copies of the reconstructed skull have been circulated to researchers around the world. The original fossils and a copy of the reconstructed skull - made from synthetic material - are now on display at the Uganda Museum in Kampala. Preliminary analysis showed the skull belonged to a male tree-climbing herbivore, which died in his youth given that the teeth were fully developed but not yet worn out.
Whether or not Ugandapithecus major has a link to human origins is still a subject of study, but Prof. Senut said scholars around the world would make comparative studies to see if it is related to other fossils of anthropoids (human-like species) that have been discovered in other parts of Africa and Asia.
The actual evolutionary descent of humans is still an issue of great controversy among palaeontologists, but most have linked the origin of humans to Africa.
Researchers say there is a 16 million-year gap between the great apes and humans. But the Ugandan discovery has caused excitement as it is helping to shed more light on the evolutionary history of primates on a continent said to be the undisputed “cradle of humanity.”
Sarah Musalizi said fossilisation is rare but the lava from the extinct Napak volcano helped to preserve the fossils. She said fossils of leaves as well as animals continue to be found under the Napak lava. The remote and arid region of Karamoja might be one of the poorest economically, but it has proven to be richest in terms of heritage and has put Uganda on the map.
The lava-covered slopes of Napak Mountain are said to hold many remains of pre-historic plants, apes, ruminants and insects, which could give important clues about the primeval era. Several skeletal elements of the same species had been found earlier at other sites of Napak volcano, which could enable them to reconstruct the whole skeleton.
Since the 1920s, the region has been central to the study of the origins of the great apes and humans. Indeed, several discoveries were made in the 1950’s. So important is the region to Uganda’s heritage that the French government sponsored the construction of a small museum in Moroto town to help conserve the region’s ethnological and natural-historical heritage for posterity.
Laurent Favier, the French deputy ambassador, witnessed the handover to Prof. Kamuntu. Ezra Musiime, a Ugandan paleontalogist who accompanied the fossils to France, commended the French for their support. Kamuntu dismissed claims that the government was planning to replace the museum with a high rise shopping mall.
He argued that “it did not make sense” for a minister in charge of national heritage to be a party to the destruction of the museum.
“These are assets entrusted to us to keep for the generations to come,” he said, amidst concerns from the journalists that the government is reluctant to aggressively market Uganda’s rich heritage to the outside world for the benefit of the country and Ugandans at large.