Jawbone of Contention – Rudapithecus hungaricus: Mouthpiece of an Age Before Humanity

Europe is often referred to as the Old World. Recorded human history in parts of Europe goes back nearly three millennia. Contrast that with the so called New World. In the Americas recorded history is just over five hundred years in length. Traditions and customs in Europe have a much longer legacy than anything that can be found across the Atlantic. For instance, Hungarians in Europe are twice as old as the historically recorded Americas. Even so, Hungarians can be considered as newcomers to the European scene. All of their surrounding neighbors are older. The Slavs arrived several hundred years before Hungarians, Romanians go all the way back to antiquity (though some contest this) and Germanic tribes were a perpetual thorn in the side of Ancient Rome. Despite the relative youthfulness of Hungarians in Europe, the land they today inhabit was home to many different peoples, tribes and empires before them. Humans in the Carpathian Basin go back thousands of years, but history does not begin with even the earliest of them.  To find the antecedents of human history in the area one must go back in times measured in geological rather than biological eras. Little is known about what might be termed proto-humans in central Europe. Nonetheless an important discovery in northern Hungary has shed some light about those who once inhabited central Europe millions of years ago.

Rudapithecus hungaricus

Rudapithecus hungaricus – looking pretty good for 10 million years old

Mining The Deep Past
Rudabanya is a large village, tucked into the Cserhat Hills north of Miskolc, with a population of approximately 3,100. From medieval to modern times the town made its livelihood as a mining center. A diverse array of minerals, from silver to iron ore to lignite was excavated. The latter finally played out in the 1980’s. Mining brought a modicum of prosperity to the area and also led to the excavation of a fascinating treasure. Remains from one of the oldest primates found in Europe were excavated from a lignite seam at Rudabanya in 1967. Among these happened to be the ten million year old jawbone of what came to be known as Rudapithecus hungaricus. This mouthpiece of an ancient ape (scientifically known as a homonoid) was unearthed. A replica is now on display at the local mining museum in the town. The exhibit is a place to ponder the depths, the depths of what can ever really be known about the origins of humanity.

The study of prehistory starts with artifacts – substantial physical evidence of the past – from which information can be discerned. The jawbone on display at Rudabanya is one particular piece of evidence that has the possibility of illuminating pre-human history. It serves as a starting point, but going any further proves extremely difficult. Attempting to put this spectacular fossil into greater context by understanding what the world was like ten million years ago seems all but impossible. This type of scientific understanding may not be the main point. The true value of the jawbone might be to help people understand their limits when it comes to the past, especially regarding how much is knowable when it comes to the deep past.

An abandoned mine site filled with water on the edge of Rudabanya

Abandoned mining site filled with water on the edge of Rudabanya

A Time Before Humanity – Carpathian Basin Ten Million Years Ago
Try to imagine what the land that is now Hungary must have been like ten million years ago. Start with one certainty: it would have been nothing like the natural environment of historic Hungary. There was no idea of a Europe, no idea of a Hungary. Humanity was as distant at that time, as that time is distant to the present age. For unscientific minds the deep past is conceivable only by stretching the imagination to its outer limits. Yet there are limits to such a thought experiment. If anything, human imaginings of this period are limited by frame of reference. Humans imagine a landscape and climate roughly analogous to the present one in which they live. Yet scientists state that the Carpathian Basin of ten million years ago was covered by a shallow inland sea that was bordered by swampland. How many Hungarians of today have experience with swamps? And those who have had such an experience must ask themselves would a swamp from ten million years ago be anything like one that exists today? It is highly doubtful. All that can ever really be known is what has been seen and experienced. Anything else is based on belief.

What is known for certain? There is a jawbone in Rudabanya believed to be ten millions years old and a few other parts from the skeleton.  The jawbone is thought to have belonged to a primate which had the characteristics of higher apes. It might possibly be a a direct ancestor of humans. At that point the speculation begins. How human like was this hominoid in its features? Was it an ape or a proto-human? How closely related was it to mankind? Science has been trying for decades to provide the answers, which inevitably leads to more questions. Where does it all end? It is frustrating to consider that the only answer science can provide is a best guess. Conversely, a best guess is still pretty impressive considering the age of Rudapithecus hungaricus. Consider that the jawbone belonged to a creature that lived nine million nine hundred and ninety eight thousand years before the Romans set foot in Hungary. And that’s just an approximation. In other words, it was an unimaginably long time ago.

Excavation at Rudabanya

Excavation at Rudabanya – searching for clues to the deep past

The Most Important Question
One tantalizing question outweighs all others when it comes to Rudabanya: What else might lie beneath? Mining ended there twenty-five years ago. The chance of another major fossil excavation at Rudabanya continues, with field schools digging in the area. Until the next discovery, humans are at the mercy of hypothesis and imagination. Rudapithecus hungaricus has left Hungarians, scientists and the rest of the world with seemingly endless questions and very few answers. The deep past is difficult to fathom and most likely impossible to ever really know. That will never stop people from trying or questioning.

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