News Europe Madelaine Böhme, the paleontologist who shook the dogma about the cradle of...

Madelaine Böhme, the paleontologist who shook the dogma about the cradle of humanity

Madeleine Bohme.Luis Granena

If Charles Darwin were alive he would pull his beards at his controversial findings. The German paleontologist Madelaine Böhme has not only caused the scientific community to turn its gaze, but she is also shaking up a dogma of almost two centuries, according to which the cradle of humanity is in Africa. She turns her gaze to Europe, to a continent that millions of years ago resembled the African savannah, to hitherto unknown apes that could walk on two legs, and to a fascinating history with Nazis and hidden treasures like in an Indiana Jones adventure.

The accepted scientific account is that the paths of the great apes and of humans parted ways seven million years ago in Africa. Our closest relative would be the chimpanzee, with which we share 99% of our genes. It is not known how that transition was or how bipedalism appeared, whether from orangutans clinging to trees or from gorillas that lean on their knuckles. Böhme believes he has found one of the missing pieces of the puzzle of human evolution, a missing link.

The key to the mystery was held by a Nazi, the geologist Bruno von Freyberg. While he was building bunkers around Athens during World War II, he found a jaw that looked like it was from a monkey. In the 1970s, a study determined that it belonged to a new hominid, the Graecopithecus.

That search began as a child when she was given a stone from the sea. At the age of 6 she participated in her first excavation, at 12 she organized an exploration and at 19 she found a fossil of a prehistoric elephant. To a German father and a Bulgarian mother, the researcher was born in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, the oldest uninterrupted human settlement in Europe, with more than six millennia. Walking around there is like being on a giant cake with a thousand sheets, each piece is full of layers and enigmas.

“Madelaine is one of those rare researchers who has the determination and courage to pursue such an unpopular idea as the origin of human ancestry in Europe. There are people with unusual ideas, but they don’t achieve much. Madelaine obtains results with primate fossils, as well as environmental evidence from the sediment that covers them”, describes the Swedish paleontologist Per Ahlberg. Professor at the University of Uppsala, he investigates with Böhme the origin of a fossilized footprint on a beach on the island of Crete, Greece. The human-like footprint is six million years old, predating almost all African fossils.

Böhme, a professor at the University of Tubingen in Germany, has just finished an article for the magazine Nature in which he describes a new species of great ape in Europe. She doesn’t think our ancestor resembled a chimpanzee, but she did. Danuvius guggenmosi, an ape found in a Bavarian forest that could walk on two legs and move through the trees. Unlike Lucy, the African hominid from 3.2 million years ago noted as a mother of humanity, Udo, as he has been dubbed, dates from 11.6 million years ago. Its existence became known in 2019 with an investigation that shook the postulates of The origin of species, from Darwin. The English naturalist pointed to the African savannah as the place where bipedalism began.

Africa was always on Böhme’s mind: why did it all happen on the same continent? An expert in paleoclimatology, she explains that seven million years ago Europe was not like the one we know, it was more like the savannah described by Darwin, with elephants and giraffes. “Camels evolved in North America, but nobody associates them with that place. Genetics tells us that the split between chimpanzees and humans happened between 13 and 7 million years ago. You have to look further back, even if it means changing paradigms and scenarios”, the researcher details by videoconference from an office full of books and travel memorabilia.

“Madelaine is not just an investigative machine. She also has another side, a person who loves beauty, a bohemian, capable of smiling and finding pleasure in life in a conversation with friends over a drink or on a trip to an enigmatic place. Without love for nature and life it is impossible to solve the scientific puzzle”, explains Nikolai Spassov, paleontologist at the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History.

Böhme’s findings also suggest that bipedalism could have developed in different parts of the planet. With which, we would have to ask ourselves again what makes us human. “The soul”, smiles the researcher, “is what makes us special”.

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