Bigfoot Encounters

Fossil hints at primate origins

Human Ancestors: Out of Asia? Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Fossil Evidence From Asia

Oct. 28, 2003 — An extinct, ape-like animal that researchers believe was a distant cousin of humans probably evolved in Asia, instead of Africa, according to a recent study. The finding suggests that anthropoid primates — a suborder including apes, monkeys and humans — evolved in Asia before radiating to Africa, where the earliest humans have been identified.

Researchers made the determination after analyzing an anklebone found in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly Burma. The 37-million-year-old bone likely belonged to an anthropoid species known as Amphipithecus, a large animal that leaped and climbed in the trees where it lived.Findings are published in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before the study, scientists were not sure if the bone belonged to an adapiform or an anthropoid primate. Though also in the ape family, the now-extinct adapiforms were more likely closely related to today's lemurs and lorises than to chimps and humans.

The size, dimensions and other features of the bone make it more structurally similar to anthropoids, according to the recent study. Since this bone, and other early primate fossils, appears to come from anatomically advanced creatures, anthropoids probably originated in Asia at least 55 million years ago, about 50 million years before humans began to appear.

"The amphipithecid primates represent one of the first offshoots of our evolutionary history, clearly distinct from that of lemurs and lorises," said Laurent Marivaux, lead author of the PNAS paper and a paleontologist at the Université Montpellier II in France.

"Amphipithecids could be viewed as our very old, distant cousins."Marivaux added, "With our discovery in Myanmar, we strongly strengthen the hypothesis that the anthropoid primates evolved in South Asia at the Eocene period (54.8 to 33.7 million years ago). Therefore, the view of an exclusive role of Africa in the origin of anthropoid primates is strongly challenged."

K. Christopher Beard, curator and chair of the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, has analyzed fossil primates called Eosimias from China. Beard told Discovery News that so far, his evidence "agrees very well with the evidence that Dr. Marivaux and his colleagues have been finding in Myanmar and Thailand." Beard said DNA studies confirm the bone analysis, since genetics reveal the nearest living primate relative of anthropoids is the tarsier, a nocturnal primate that lives in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines today.

Africa has never yielded any tarsier fossils. "The reason that this is important for humans is that humans are one branch of the anthropoid family tree," explained Beard. "For the vast majority of our evolution, we shared a common ancestor with other anthropoids. ... As a result of this long interval of common ancestry, we share many aspects of our anatomy with other anthropoids, like big brains and an eye socket that is completely surrounded by bone."

Next month, both Beard and Marivaux will travel to the outskirts of the Myanmar village of Mogaung, only accessible by a five-hour elephant ride.

They hope to discover further early primate remains in this remote place where the anklebone was found.


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