A 3D scan of the Fossil Beaked Whale (Turkana ziphiid) by Matthew Colbert
A 17m-year-old whale fossil found 740 km inland in the Kenyan Turkana desert gives clues about human evolution, new research suggest
The 17m-year-old fossilised skull of a beaked whale, found 740 kilometres inland from the Indian Ocean coastline allows scientist to pinpoint a date of the East African elevation, a marker for the beginning of human evolution, for the first time.
The East African Plateau is mostly between 1,000m and 1,500m high but millions of years ago, rainfall in East Africa was high and the area covered in forest and jungle. The latest examination of the fossil suggests that the whale must have accidentally swum up a river when the area was at sea level and stranded in the shallows.
The prehistoric whale, like its modern cousins the Baird's and Cuvier's beaked whale, lived in the open ocean and dived to a depth of about 3,000m to feed.
Vertebrate palaeontologist and co-author of the study Louis L Jacobs explained the significance of the latest findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, 'As that part of the continent rose up, that caused the climate to become drier and drier. So over millions of years, forest gave way to grasslands.
'Primates evolved to adapt to grasslands and dry country. And that's when - in human evolution - the primates started to walk upright.'
The 17-million-year-old fossil belonged to the oldest beaked whale known and is the only stranded whale found so far inland on the African continent.
'You don’t usually find whales so far inland,' Jacobs said. 'Many of the known beaked whale fossils are dredged by fishermen from the bottom of the sea.'
The fossil was originally found in 1964 but remained untouched for nearly 40 years after it was mistaken for a turtle and filed away until it resurfaced in 2011 at Harvard and Jabobs re-identified the fossil.
'With the whale, everything started,' Henry Wichura,one of the study authors told Live Science.