The conventional narrative of primate development places the origins of anthropoids — monkeys and apes, including humans — in Africa. Some paleontologists, however, think Asia is the more likely cradle for that ur-primate, or what Christopher Beard has called the “Dawn Monkey.”
Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is among the co-authors of the paper describing the new primates, published October 28 in Nature. The four species’ fossils, representing three distinct taxonomic families, are 40 million years old. Nothing similar was known to have lived in Africa at that time.
The diversity and timing of the new anthropoids raises two scenarios. Anthropoids might simply have emerged in Africa much earlier than thought, and gone undiscovered by modern paleontologists. Or they could have crossed over from Asia, where evidence suggests that anthropoids lived 55 million years ago, flourishing and diversifying in the wide-open ecological niches of an anthropoid-free Africa.
That humans may trace their evolutionary lineage to creatures like the newly discovered anthropoids, which likely weighed between four ounces and one pound and could sit in the palm of your hand, is an intriguing possibility. But other paleontologists warn that more investigation is required.