Scientists hope to show humankind originated in Mediterranean
An exhibit shows the life of a neanderthal family in a cave in the new Neanderthal Museum in the northern town of Krapina on Feb. 25, 2010. The high-tech, multimedia museum, with exhibitions depicting the evolution from 'Big Bang' to present day, opens on Feb. 27. (Reuters/Nikola Solic)

A team of excavators in Bulgaria has resumed a search for fossils of an ape-like creature which may be the oldest-known direct ancestor of man and whose discovery has challenged the central hypothesis that humankind originated in Africa.

The Graecopithecus freybergi, who lived 7.2 million years ago, is known only from a lower jawbone, unearthed in 1944 in Greece, and an isolated tooth, found in 2009 near the Bulgarian town of Chirpan, where excavations have now restarted.

"It would be great to find a whole skeleton but a thigh would also help us a lot," Professor Nikolai Spassov, head of Bulgaria's National Museum of Natural History, told Reuters.

The scientific consensus long has been that humanity's ape-like ancestors, known as hominins, originated in Africa. Until now, the oldest-known hominin was Sahelanthropus, which lived 6-7 million years ago in Chad. [L1N1IO0IT]

But Spassov hopes new fossils will back up the theory that hominins originated in the Eastern Mediterranean.

"They have most probably migrated to Africa due to climate change," he said.

Surrounded by dangerous predators in a savannah-type environment, life would have been hard for a Graecopithecus freybergi. A male would have weighed around 40 kg and a female around 30 kg, Spassov said.

Scientists in Greece are also expected to resume the search for remains of the hominin, and excavation work will begin in neighboring Macedonia in September.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)