For years, scientists believed the closest human relative was the chimpanzees, but a recent study exploring the physical characteristics of orangutans argues otherwise.
At the Buffalo Museum and the University of Pittsburg, researchers John Grehan and Jeffrey H. Schwartz have discovered remarkable resemblances between human and orangutan features.
As a scientifically supported concept, the idea that chimps were the most genetically identical relatives to humans was virtually universal in the research world. What Schwartz and Grehan found, however, is that chimps share significantly fewer physical features with humans than orangutans do.
Compared to orangutans' 28 uniquely shared features with humans, chimps only shared about 2. Among fossil hominids, Schwartz and Grehan further observed that orangutans shared about eight distinct features with Australopithecus, one of the earliest hominin species. Such a finding countered the belief that chimpanzees were the ones to share common qualities with the ancient human species since they were established as humankind's closest cousin. Grehan and Schwartz found that chimps, however, only shared features with Australopithecus that all other great apes shared as well.
As the similarities between us and orangutans became clearer, Schwartz and Grehan associated this connection with the term "dental hominoids" because of the thick-enameled teeth we both have.
It is important to remember that many human fossils are found in Africa, however, while orangutans originated in Southeast Asia.
So how could orangutans share a common ancestor with us if they developed in a completely different region?
That is where the geographical perspective of this study comes into play.
Plant fossils have revealed the possibility that a large forest once spanned from southern Europe to China before the development of the Himalayas. Such a theory suggested that an ancient, dental hominoid could have inhabited this area and traveled across the different regions we have today. As climatic conditions began to change, this hominoid species eventually grew apart and evolved independently in separate groups, which could explain why early humans and orangutans evolved at a distance but still shared a common ancestor.
It is noted that DNA sampling has been conducted on chimps and humans to find an overwhelming 96% similarity. A theory regarding the correlation of genetic identity and evolutionary relationships is yet to be established, however. Schwartz and Grehan further argued that the Journal of Biogeography deeply overlooked the overwhelming number of physical features shared between orangutans and humans because of predetermined chimp conclusions.
Regardless, this orangutan project is still highly disregarded and in need of additional research. While Schwartz and Grehan have worked to question chimpanzee data and explore alternate truths, their efforts to shake up the evolutionary origins of humankind are yet to reap benefits.
New ideas are in the air now, but it will take much more than one physical study to put these ideas into play.
So next time you visit the zoo or go on a safari adventure, pay extra attention to the orangutan and conduct your own research. The primate world is full of possibilities, and you never know what you could find.