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
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.
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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