The skull of the new species, Panthera blytheae, was excavated by a team led by Jack Tseng from American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. (Agencies)
"This find suggests that 'big cats' have a deeper evolutionary origin than previously suspected," said Tseng.
The fossil was described in a paper coauthored by Xiaoming Wang published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
DNA evidence from the fossil suggests that the Pantherinae subfamily, including lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards – diverged from their nearest evolutionary cousins, Felinae (which includes cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats) about 6.37 million years ago.
The fossils of so called big cats found in the 1970s at Laetoli in Tanzania suggested the family diverged just 3.6 million years ago.
Using magnetostratigraphy – a process of dating fossils based on the distinctive patterns of reversals in the Earth's magnetic field recorded in layers of rock – Tseng and his team estimated the age of the skull between 4.10 and 5.95 million years.
The find not only challenges previous findings, but also helps place that evolution in a geographical context. The fossil suggests that the group evolved in central Asia and spread outward, a media release said.
The skull of the new species, Panthera blytheae, was excavated by a team led by Jack Tseng from American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York.