Discovery of The Most Primitive Primate

Fossilized bones found in a coal mine in Gujarat, India. U.S. quarter shown for size. (photo: Johns Hopkins Medicine)
Discovery of The Most Primitive Primate
post by
Jonas Van Boxel

A cache of exquisitely preserved bones, found in a coal mine in the state of Gujarat, India, appear to be the most primitive primate bones yet discovered. The discovery marks an important chapter in the evolution of primates, mammals which include humans, apes and monkeys.

The 25 bones were discovered by an international research team, which included Thierry Smith from our Institute, in a coal mine in Vastan. They are 54,5 million years old and the most primitive primate remains yet discovered.

Kenneth Rose, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explains: “All other primate bones found so far around the world  clearly belong to one or the other of the two primate groups, called clades: Strepsirrhini (including lemurs and lorises) and Haplorhini (including tarsiers, apes and humans). But many of the Gujarat bones show features that do not clearly belong to one clade or the other.”

This would mean that the small animals represent a very early stage of primate evolution. The analysis suggests that the Gujarat primates are close descendants of the common ancestor that gave rise to the two separate clades.  That idea is counterintuitive, because older primate fossils exist that show more specialized features. But the researchers add that the situation is fairly common.

Not the oldest

The remains from the Vastan mine are substantially younger than the oldest known primate genus, Teilhardina, which is 56 million years old and was found in Europe, North-America and northern Asia. “It is the first time we find primate fossils that are more primitive than the Belgian species Teilhardina belgica and the Chinese Archicebus achilles”, says Thierry Smith.

Smith clarifies: “The most likely scenario is that the primitive primates lived in both India and Europe, where we find their most closely related predecessors. That happened before India collided with Asia. India and Europe were connected with a large land bridge, a chain of islands in the Neotethys Ocean. It is hard to say in which direction the primates migrated – from India to Europe or the other way around – but somewhere in those millions of years, India became isolated. That is why you find more primitive but at the same time younger primate fossils there.”

The fossil analysis indicates that the Gujarat primates were adapted to live in the high trees of the rain forest, but were less specialized in climbing than present-day leaping lemurs or lorises. They appear to be most similar to the gray mouse lemur.

The study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

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