Whale Fossil Provides Clues on Human Origins
Discovery sheds light on when uplift of African continent began
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 17, 2015 7:31 PM CDT
A more modern beaked whale.   (AP Photo/ Cascadia Research Collective, Robin W. Baird)

(Newser) – An ancient whale with a bad sense of direction is helping researchers figure out when the landscape of Africa changed in a way that drove the evolution of humans. The beaked whale in question apparently took a wrong turn into a river and swam into modern-day Kenya about 17 million years ago, reports LiveScience. Based on where it was found, researchers have been able to pinpoint with the most accuracy yet when the East African Plateau began rising. As the Los Angeles Times explains, that is a monumental moment in the history of mankind, because this “geologic upheaval” transformed the region from dense forests into grasslands—and made it essential that early humans be able to walk upright.

"The whale is telling us all kinds of things," says a paleontologist at Southern Methodist University who co-authored the study in the journal PNAS. "It tells us the starting point for all that uplift that changed the climate that led to humans. It’s amazing.” The whale skull was originally found in 1964, misidentified as a turtle, and lost in storage for decades at Harvard. Upon its redisocovery, researchers were able to use the original 1964 field notes to find the exact spot where it was found. "Today, that same spot is more than 2,000 feet above sea level," notes UPI. Researchers know the fossil is 17 million years old because they can accurately date a lava flow found above it. As a result, they can safely conclude for the first time that the epochal uplift began no earlier than 17 million years ago. (In Israel, archaeologists unearthed a one-of-a-kind ancient mask.)