Let's leave politics and history behind for a bit and learn something about paleontology. Or more specifically one fossil hominoid known as Rudapithecus hungaricus. His name is derived from the place where he was found–Rudabánya in Northern Hungary. Bánya in Hungarian means "mine" while "ruda" in Old Church Slavonic meant "metal" and in Russian means "ore." Rudabánya was one of the earliest mines in the country where medieval Hungarians found copper, silver, lead, and iron ore. Rudabánya is in that troubled and poverty stricken area of northeastern Hungary in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county. In modern times there were lignite mines here, but by 1987 the lignite reserves were completely exhausted.
Mining might be gone but Rudabánya became famous almost overnight in the mid-1960s. It all started when the senior geologist employed by the mining company found some interesting fossils in the lignite seams. He passed them on to Miklós Kretzoi, paleontologist of the Hungarian Geological Survey and professor at the University of Debrecen. Kretzoi recognized in these fossils evidence of the early phase of hominization. He called this new species Rudapithecus hungaricus and published his findings in 1967. "Rudi," as he's affectionately known, displays certain features present in the higher apes that point the road to the direct ancestors of humans.
Rudi is approximately 10 million years old, which means he lived in the late phase of the Cenozoic or the beginnings of the Miocne/Pliocene period. I might add that at that time the Carpathian Basin was covered with a shallow sea encompassing large areas of the present territory of Hungary. Its shores were bordered by swampy forests; the weather was milder and more humid than today. The remains of the swamps are today seams of lignite along the Northern Mid-Mountains range.
"Rudi" was not the sole find. Researchers found other extinct species, the descendants of which live today in sub-tropical and Mediterranean regions. But the most important discovery was the hominoid material: it has worldwide significance. Up to date they have unearthed fossils of twenty-six different hominoids.
Research often proceeds with foreign help. This year a Canadian team arrived from the University of Toronto–David R. Begun of the Department of Anthropology and twelve of his students. His Hungarian counterpart was László Kordos of the Geological Institute in Budapest. National Geographic funded this year's excavations and apparently will continue to fund excavation on the site. I decided to write about Rudabánya because the Canadians just left Hungary after a very successful dig. This year's finds are in fact nothing short of spectacular. Begun's team found twenty-five fossils of individuals. According to the researchers involved, Rudapithecus may be the closest we have yet come to finding the ancestor of African great apes and humans. And this ape lived in Europe! The researchers have an almost complete skull of Rudi and some skeletal parts, including a pelvis, two thigh bones, and wrist bones.
David Begun apparently is a champion of the theory that the ancestors of African apes evolved in Eurasia. Of course, not everybody agrees with Begun and his coworker, Kordos. Those who disagree with them discount the significance of the Miocene apes of Europe, including Rudapithecus, because they think African great apes evolved in Africa. However, there is a gap in the fossil record in Africa betwen Miocene apes living there more than 14 million years ago and the appearance of hominins in Africa between 7 and 5 million years ago. So there is little fossil evidence to support the view that great apes evolved from earlier African apes in Africa. Begun and Kordos plan to keep searching for more remains of Rudapitheacus, hoping they will provide further evidence for their hypothesis.
Begun, Kordos, and their team must have had a rather hard summer. It was beastly hot in Hungary when they were there. As for whether we will ever know the exact family tree of apes and these apes' geographic distribution, I'm not at all sure. But Rudabánya with a population of 3,000 is extremely happy with their village's fame. Apparently they even erected a little museum in which one can see copies of the fossils found. The Hungarian National Museum also had an important exhibition on Rudabánya and Miklós Kretzoi.
Whether Rudi is the European link to the African apes and thus to man might be the subject of scientific debate. However, his discovery by itself is an important milestone in paleontology.