The world’s oldest face belongs to this 419 million-year-old fish

Discovery of an ancient sea predator might also re-write the history of our evolution from the seas

Scientists believe that a new fossil discovery from China is the world’s oldest known example of the bone structure we now recognize as a face.

The remarkably well-preserved fish (an example of the species Entelognathus primordialis) was discovered in Southeast China in a layer of sediment dating back to the Silurian period – making the specimen roughly 419 million years old.

Detailed in the journal Nature, the find is remarkable because it’s the earliest known example of the basic facial bone structure we recognize today: the ancient predator has a jaw, a mouth, two eyes and a nose.

All other previous finds from this geological time period have been of jawless fish – a type of animal that still exists today as lamprey and hagfish.

However, even stranger than looking eye to eye with the world’s oldest known face is the idea that this fossil might even be a director ancestor of human life.

The fossil is unique in that it displays characteristics of two types of ancient fish: placoderms (heavily armoured fish that were thought to have gone extinct millions of years ago) and bony fish (a taxonomic group that gave rise to all modern veterbrate fish - and subsequently amphibians, birds, mammals and finally us).


The face of the fossil. The jaw is towards the bottom right, and above the mouth three perforations can be seen. The far left is the eye socket and the next two in are the nostrils. Image courtesy of Nature/Min Zhu.

This new find has the body and cranium (the top of the skull) of a placoderm but the jaws of a bony fish, meaning that perhaps the heavily-armoured fish species never went extinct, and instead evolved (eventually) into the many land and sea animals that exist today.

In other words, this fossil might rewrite scientific models of our most ancient evolutionary paths.

“It’s going to take a while for people to digest it and figure out what it all means,” Matt Friedman, a paleobiologist at the University of Oxford who reviewed the paper, told The Smithsonian blog.  “From a fossil like this, you’ve got a cascade of implications, and this is just the first paper to deal with them.”

A reconstruction of how the fossil might have appeared 419-million years: a top predator in ancient oceans. Image courtesy of Brian Choo.