A newly discovered species of ape may have been walking on two feet almost 12 million years ago in Europe, scientists have found, dramatically altering the timeline of when one of humankind’s most fundamental features began.

Scientists had previously believed the upright posture we have today originated six million years ago in Africa.

But the fossils of a previously unknown primate named Danuvius, discovered in southern Germany, suggest apes were displaying the human-like characteristics long before then.

The team, led by Madelaine Böhme from the University of Tübingen, worked in a clay pit in Bavaria, where they excavated more than 15,000 vertebrate bones.

Remains of at least four individual primates were found, and the most complete skeleton — of a male Danuvius — is similar in size and shape to modern-day bonobos. His preserved limb, finger and toe bones helped the scientists reconstruct how he moved in his environment.

“For the first time, we were able to investigate several functionally important joints, including the elbow, hip, knee and ankle, in a single fossil skeleton of this age,” Böhme said in a press release. “It was astonishing for us to realize how similar certain bones are to humans, as opposed to great apes.”

The 21 bones of the most complete partial skeleton of a male Danuvius.
The 21 bones of the most complete partial skeleton of a male Danuvius.

“The finds in southern Germany are a milestone in paleoanthropology, because they raise fundamental questions about our previous understanding of the evolution of the great apes and humans,” she added.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, suggest Danuvius could walk on two legs and could also climb like an ape. His spine had an S-shaped curve which held the rest of the body upright while he stood on two feet.

“In contrast to later hominins, Danuvius had a powerful, opposable big toe, which enabled it to grasp large and small branches securely,” said Nikolai Spassov of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, who contributed to the study.

Danuvius stood about a meter (3.3 feet) in height and weighed less than most apes today. Males measured at around 31 kilos (68 pounds), and females at about 18 kilos (40 pounds).

“The ribcage was broad and flat, and the lower back was elongated; this helped to position the center of gravity over extended hips, knees and flat feet, as in bipeds,” said a press release from the University of Tübingen.

Earlier this year scientists found that early humans were still swinging from trees two million years ago after confirming a set of fossils found in South Africa represents a “missing link” in humanity’s family tree.