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Mankind's ancient "cousin' now has a face

Anthropologists have a new snapshot for the human family album: a 60-pound, fruit-eating ape with gaping, squarish eyes, protruding mouth and not much of a forehead.

Ankarapithecus meteai, which roamed central Turkey 10-million years ago _ long before the evolutionary split that separated humans from chimps _ looks pretty good to those who study human evolution.

For years they've had almost no fossil evidence of what happened to humanity's ancestors between about 18-million years ago and 5-million years ago. Finally, anthropologists excavating near Ankara, Turkey, discovered a fossil ape face more complete than any known from that period.

"I think people are going to be very surprised when they see what this looks like," said John Kappelman, a member of the expedition that discovered the fossil last year.

Kappelman, a professor at the University of Texas, and researchers from Ankara University in Turkey, the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki, and the Natural History Museum in London describe the fossil face in today's issue of the journal Nature.

The fossil probably didn't belong to a direct ancestor of modern humans. It was more of a cousin, many times removed. But studying the face will tell anthropologists much more than they now know about the common ancestor of humans and the great apes. The great ape group includes gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.

"There are so few specimens that are as complete as this," said David Pilbeam of Harvard University. "Any additional specimen makes a significant increment in our knowledge."

The new Ankarapithecus meteai fossil is not the first representative of its kind. A jawbone and lower face from the same species were collected during the 1950s in the same place where the new fossil turned up. But those bones, which appear to belong to a male of the species, are much less complete than those of the female Kappelman and his colleagues found.