Rudabánya and the Early Phase of Hominisation

Rudabánya: history of the site and the excavations between 1965-1978

The history of the living beings on our Earth is that of constant changes. Proofs of the process, evolution have been preserved by the sediments of the geological past. The fossils documenting the development of Man and higher mammals close to the human line are especially valuable and interesting for us.

In the 1960, finds of outstanding significance were discovered in the strip-mine at Rudabánya. Gábor Hernyák, senior geologist of the mine found interesting fossils in the lignite seams on the territory of the parts called Vilmos-mine. He transferred the finds in 1967 to Miklós Kretzoi, palaeontologist of the Hungarian Geological Survey and professor of the Debrecen university, who recognised among them a proof of the early phase of hominisation. He described on the basis of a mandible a new species called Rudapithecus hungaricus Kretzoi 1967, and conducted excavations on the locality for nearly one decade. The Rudapithecus - find - which is commonly nicknamed "Rudi" shows certain features within the higher apes that point further towards the direction of the ancestors of humans. On the site, apart from the Rudapithecus there were three more new Hominoid taxa found, described by the excavator under the names Bodvapithecus altipalatus, Anapithecus hernyaki and Ataxopithecus serus.

The age of the finds is approximately 10 million years. This is in the late phase of the Cenozoic period, at the borders of the Miocene/Pliocene period, belonging to, according to the regional chronological scheme elaborated for the Carpathian Basin to the Pannonian period, receiving its name from the shallow sea covering significant areas of the present territory of Hungary.

Its shores were bordered by swampy forests with milder and more humid weather than today. The remains of the swamps are today seams of lignite along the Northern Mid-Mountains range. 'Rudi' was found in one of these. In the carbonised layers we find rich flora and fauna characteristic of the Pannonian period, perished or drifted in the marshes. They comprise mainly extinct species the descendants of which live today in sub-tropical and Mediterranean regions.

The most important find assemblage is undoubtedly the Hominoid material. Its importance surpasses regional interest; we can say, without exaggeration, it has a world-wide significance. The detailed elaboration of the finds took decades of intensive work. The results were published recently by the Hungarian National Museum in English [Miklós Kretzoi, The Fossil Hominoids of Rudabánya (Northeastern Hungary) and Early Hominisation, Budapest (2002)].

The research of the site was continued from the eighties by the Hungarian Geological Institute under the direction of László Kordos.


Miklós Kretzoi

Miklós Kretzoi, geologist, palaeontologist, excavator and publisher of the Rudabánya finds is completing his ninety-seventh year; he was born on 9th of February 1907 in Budapest. He is the doyen of Hungarian and international Palaeolithic research, awarded with the most prestigious honours of Hungarian scientific life, Széchenyi-prize.

He finished his university studies between 1925-1929 at the Pázmány Péter University, Budapest, studying arts and natural sciences. His first significant scientific publications were issued during his university years and he already started to collect data for building up a cadastre published recently, containing the most important data on Mammalian genera existing since the Mesozoic times till our days [Kretzoi, M. & M. Kretzoi, M.: Fossilium Catalogus 1: Animalia. Pars 137 - Index Generum et Subgenerum Mammalium. Leiden (2000)].

In 1930 he obtained university doctor's degree. He passed his doctoral exams from the subjects Palaeontology, Geology and Geography at Pécs.

Between 1926-1933 he was voluntary collaborator of the Royal Hungarian Geological Institute, dealing with palaeontology and geology.

In the years 1933-1941, he was working as mapping geologist for the Hungarian-American Oil Ltd.

Between 1941-1950 he was the head of the Palaeontological Department of the HNM Natural History Museum.

In the period 1950-1956, he was the head of the Palaeontological Department of the Hungarian Geological Institute.

In 1952, he became the Doctor of Geological and Mineralogical Sciences of the Academy.

In the years 1956-1958, he served as director of the Hungarian Geological Institute.

Between 1959-1970, he was working as senior research fellow in the Hungarian Geological Institute where he continued working for several more years after he retired.

In the period between 1970-1974, he was head of department and university professor at the Department of Zoology and Anthropology of the Kossuth Lajos University of Sciences.

The first Rudabánya finds were published by Miklós Kretzoi in 1967, describing the first Hominoidea find from Rudabánya, Rudapithecus hungaricus.

Between 1970-1978, he conducted palaeontological excavations on the Rudabánya prehominid site.


Miklós Kretzoi: Notions on the early phase of Hominisation

Man is interested in, moreover, intrigued by his own origins since prehistoric times - probably since the formation of permanent settlements and productive economy (agriculture and animal husbandry).

Tangible proofs, finds to back up the story, however were not available for millennia. Even by most of the 19th century only some theories (Lamarckism, Darwinism) lingered in the public cognisance, and only in thin layer of the society. The flow of evidence (fossils), however started to accumulate in this period and has grown to several thousands of finds building and completing the connection between Man and the animal world that was considered formerly inconceivable.

The first find, which was partly misinterpreted, partly denied came to light in 1820, when a German professor of anatomy, Schleyermacher stated the following about the remains of a limb bone found in the gravel of the river Rhine near the village Eppelsheim: "the bone originated from a 16 years old girl but it could belong to an ape as well". Schleyermacher sent the copy and the drawing of the femur-find, to the utmost regret of scientific research, to the most respectable scholar of palaeontology in those days, baron Cuvier who simply withheld the information about the find opposing his theory ("fossil man does not exist"). As an apology for Cuvier we have to mention that when he wrote these lines (1824), there were no human fossil remains known from stratigraphically clear context.

The rigid opinion of Cuvier hindered the development of scientific research for more than a quarter of a century after his death in 1832. Thus palaeontologists described the dental remains from the 8-14 million year old layers from the Suabian Alps and Dévényújfalu (today: Western Slovakia) one by one as remains of modern man.

The situation changed suddenly by 1856. Within one year, two cardinal finds of hominisation research came to light: the mandible of Dryopithecus fontani from the 10-12 million years old layers of St.Gaudens, Southern France and the first authentic find of Paleoanthropus, described as the calvaria from Neandertal cave sediments in Germany described as Homo neanderthalensis dated to the Upper part of the Pleistocene (100.000 years). After these, a large number finds came to light from the Tertiary and Quaternary sediments of Europe, Africa and Asia that are already adequate to delineate the so-called phyletic tree, symbolising the evolution from the animal world through hominoids to modern Man.

As it is evident from this phyletic tree, the earliest known Hominoid finds originate from geological layers of approximately 30-32 million years at Fayum, Northern Egypt. These forms were named Propliopithecus and Aegyptopithecus, respectively. Their taxonomical position is still debated within the higher mammals. These are followed by East-African finds which are about ten million years younger from Tanzania and Kenya, respectively, called Proconsul, Rangwapithecus, Morotopithecus and other generic names. These ancient Hominoid groups (Propliopithecides and Proconsulides) are characterised by a so-called cingulum, that is a ribbon-like margin along the lingual side of the mastication surface increasing the surface of the relatively low crown of the tooth.

The number of these finds from East-Africa decreased essentially 13-14 million years ago, therefore it seemed they became extinct by 11-12 Ma. On the last day of our Rudabánya excavations in 1978, however, to our big surprise a representative of this ancient group surviving his African relatives were found. Probably by the end of the Miocene this form reached Europe together with the other apes and was still living here 11- 12 million years ago. Its occurrence is testified by a Rudabánya find, upper part of half maxilla with teeth (Ataxopithecus serus). The long bone fragment (lower arm bone with the elbow) found in the mid-thirties in Late Miocene sediments of the Vienna Basin dated to 12-13 Ma, described later as Austriacopithecus weinfurteri can probably be assigned to the Proconsulids as well.

Opposed to Proconsulids dominating in Africa, only two Hominoids having upper molars without cingulum came to light, i.e. “Sivapithecusafricanus from the beginning of the Miocene (?) and the Late Miocene Kenyapithecus wickeri. After them, for 7 million years Hominoid finds are practically missing from the African continent while in Europe and Asia, a vast quantity (several thousand) fossils were found in the period after the Rudabánya proconsulid that belong without exception to the group without “cingulum”. This vast amount of evidence, however, has some perplexing deficiencies concerning the cognisance of hominisation.

The finds comprise various parts of the skeleton and the teeth that often do not allow taxonomical identification, not even proper comparison. For example, the remains of Dryopithecus fontani described for the first time from the type locality yielded only mandible with teeth. To compare it with maxillae originating from other localities and assigned similarly to Dryopithecus, partly as separate species is still not feasible. To quote an even more intriguing example: what is the guarantee for separating Dryopithecus (based on mandible) and Paidopithex rhenanus (the Eppelsheim femur denoting a smaller individual) as belonging to different genera? Or, was the latter only the female form of the Dryopithecus?

Thus we cannot do more than ranking the more than 1500 Eurasian fossil Hominoids described under nearly 20 generic names (comprising forms probably "without cingulum”, that is not Proconsulids) into three size categories with transitional forms and treat the further three forms different in some features from the average separately.

We can assign to the category of small forms, apart from the Eppelsheim limb-bone with special interest to the history of science (Paidopithex rhenanus) the molars of “Anthropodus” (Neopithecus) brancoi (mentioned also, incorrectly, Rhenopithecus eppelsheimensis) from the Lower Pliocene of the Suabian Alps and, mainly, the forms described from North-Eastern Spain having roughly similar, or slightly older, age, i.e. Hispanopithecus laietanus and Rahonapithecus sabadellensis. We can also assign here the Lower Pliocene finds that came to light from Garedji, Georgia (South-Eastern slope of the Caucasus) comprising two teeth (Udabnopithecus garedziensis), as the easternmost representative of this Western group known so far.

The medium size group seems the most abundant. Among its members who were roughly of the same size range as Dryopithecus fontani, and partly more delicate like Ramapithecus punjabicus, Rudapithecus hungaricus, Bodvapithecus altipalatus, all of them show some individual characters. Such is the fragile frame of the first one, its relatively week canines and slightly arched palate, the shortened face of the second and mainly the position of the incisors turned steeply downwards connected to a shorter and higher margin of the nasal cavity, and finally at the third form the higher arch of the palate - they are the most important features in which they differ from the hypothesed corresponding characteristics of the Dryopithecus. It should be also mentioned that according to some considerations of zoo-geographical argumentation, the Ramapithecus-type could be simply considered the female of the Sivapithecus type belonging to the large forms.

There is at least as much trouble in the analysis of the large size group as well. They share, apart from their dimension, another feature and this is the build-up of the molars which are without cingulum, excluding any connection with the Proconsulida-branch. The fossils, however, are often deficient and fragmentary therefore the statements we can make should be confirmed, probably with some new and more fortunate finds.

Consequently we have to divide this large size group into at least three categories. In the first sub-group we can assign the Middle Pliocene (approximately 8 million years old) gorilla-size Indian form, Indopithecus (represented by a single lower molar) and a similarly large genus comprising several species, Gigantopithecus. Its fossils finds came forth from the Late Pliocene and the Lower Pleistocene from South-China and dated to 4-2 million years. Apart from their bulky construction, they are characterised by diminished frontal teeth, especially canines almost like that of man and the strikingly high crown of their molars. The second sub-group is formed by remains of the Graecopithecus (Ouranopithecus) excavated from the Late Middle Pliocene layers of Greece dated to 8 million years. Here the reduction of the canines is well observable and compared to the former ones, the palatum is more flat resulting in a horizontal position of the frontal teeth resembling the chimpanzee or the orang.

The third (mixed) sub-group is formed by recent African apes (gorilla, chimpanzee and the bonobo), which cannot be linked with certainty to any of the fossil groups because of the lack of connecting finds.

Turning back to Africa: among the finds commonly considered as immediate predecessors of Man in the period between 4.5 and 2.5 million years, none of them show the most important, immediate features of hominisation. The essential elements of the process are, namely, the followings: with the slow decrease in the size of the teeth, the lower part of the face bearing the roots of the teeth is shortened, bringing about the gradual rise of the nasal parts. In the meantime the canines are reduced to the size of the incisors, the frontal teeth become more steep, finally of vertical position. All these changes turn the animal face into a human face.

To this we have to add that the generally accepted "ancestors of humans" in the afore mentioned period between 4.5-2.5 million years: Ardipithecus - Australopithecus - Plesianthropus - Paranthropus - Zinjanthropus turned to, instead of a human form, gradually towards an orang-like direction taking an elongated labial margin - parallel to the decrease of frontal teeth, to a degree surpassing that of modern man! This fact shows the special significance of the facial skull of Rudapithecus which is relatively short having a short and high (steep) palatum facilitating a steeper position of the teeth. This moment had a very important consequence later on for the utterance of consonants, leading to the formation of speaking, a complicate system of communication characterising the modern man (Homo sapiens).

The situation is further complicated by the rich fossil record discovered from the volcanic sediments of Java dated slightly younger (2 million years) than the earliest finds considered already belonging to humans (Homo).With an eye on the large distance and the Indian Ocean separating the two regions, we cannot postulate contact between the two territories. At the same we cannot accept a double lineage for man. Even supposing that the Ramapithecus remains were not merely the females of the Sivapithecus, there is a gap of 5-6 million years between the disappearance of the Indian Hominoids and the appearance of the Java Homo. The time gap in Eastern Africa, however, is not less than this. We have to add that in the southern part of China in the same time span (7-8 million years ago) very rich assemblage of Hominoids have been unearthed, more than the European and African evidence put together. Finds of the orang lineage restricted to the territory of Indonesia in our days were also discovered from the Late Pliocene-Pleistocene sediments of China.

Turning back to the Homo-lineage: the first tool-finds were reported from the East-African Oduvai, from Trinil (Java) and Easter Chinese Choukoutien, later on they were found in Europe within the sediments of the end of the Lower Pleistocene and, mainly, the Middle Pleistocene (400-700 000 years old) formations (Mauer, Vértesszőlős, Petralona, Bilzingsleben, Atapuerca, etc.). These tools can be attributed to the group registered under the name Homo erectus divided into local variants, showing the tendency of hominisation by the increase of cranial cavity as well. As a last step of this process we have to mention the form known as Homo neanderthalensis, disappearing 30-35 000 years ago from all the three continents of the Old World to be replaced my modern man.

The cranial cavity of modern man is equal to, or quite often, smaller than that of Homo neanderthalensis. The forehead of modern man is steep and the cranium is raised over the facial skull. A significant difference is the formation of the chin: the jaws kept pace with the slow decrease of the teeth, but only the upper part of the bones holding the roots of the teeth was shortened (retracted) while the lower margin of the mandible which is the basis where the muscles moving the tongue adhere to the bone frame kept its length. This process lead to the vertical position of the teeth characteristic of Homo sapiens, a phenomenon which is still underestimated in significance. This made us capable of uttering consonants, consequently, to form articulate syllables instead of cries of passion, that is speaking, which made the thinking man capable of expressing and passing on ideas. His further evolution - partly due to the short time elapsed in a geological scale - took place not in the anatomical but in the cultural sphere and, therefore, belongs to the sphere of interest of scholars of cultural evolution, i.e., archaeology.

The phyletic tree is still burdened at several points with unclarified issues. One of them is the way of development leading to the orang. The Indian finds registered under the name ”Palaeopithecus”=Sivapithecus-Bramapithecus, Sugrivapithecus and other names were also debated for long decades while a new and almost complete find registered as GSP-15.000 from Pakistan demonstrated that all these, including the Ankarapithecus of similar age from Asia Minor belong to the line of development of the orang (Pongo). This group comprising large forms is distinguished among the other non-Proconsulids by a construction of limbs accommodated to moving in the foliage level of trees ("four hands") and the very characteristic form of the facial skull. While the other Hominoids are characterised by a wide nasal base (and, consequently, a wide face), all the so far known members of the orang line (that is, exemplified by fossil finds since 8 million years) are characterised by a very narrow nasal base and therefore narrow position of the eyes and a deeply "depressed" nasal part. This is made even more striking by the laterally extended shovel-like incisors. The most striking difference between the oldest known fossil finds and the recent representative is the stronger incisors of modern male orang and his huge canines. All these agreements between the suddenly appearing fossil forms at the middle of the Pliocene (7-8 Ma) and modern forms of the Pongids, however, give no clue to the date and place of their separation from the main line of the Hominoid development.

* * *

The main lines of hominisation seem to take shape clearly. The clarification of the details, however, need a lot more finds to come forth and their disciplined, professional - and not ostentatious - work.