January 30, 2017
Researchers have identified traces of what they believe is the earliest known prehistoric ancestor of humans—a microscopic, bag-like sea creature, which lived about 540 million years ago.
Named Saccorhytus, after the sack-like features created by its elliptical body and large mouth, the species is new to science and was identified from microfossils found in China. It is thought to be the most primitive example of a so-called "deuterostome"—a broad biological category that encompasses a number of sub-groups, including the vertebrates.
If the conclusions of the study, published in the journal Nature, are correct, then Saccorhytus was the common ancestor of a huge range of species, and the earliest step yet discovered on the evolutionary path that eventually led to humans, hundreds of millions of years later.
Modern humans are, however, unlikely to perceive much by way of a family resemblance. Saccorhytus was about a millimetre in size, and probably lived between grains of sand on the seabed. Its features were spectacularly preserved in the fossil record—and intriguingly, the researchers were unable to find any evidence that the animal had an anus.
The study was carried out by an international team of academics, including researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and Northwest University in Xi'an China, with support from other colleagues at institutions in China and Germany.