5-9-8. The Evolution of Primates
Characteristics of Primates
All primate species possess adaptations for climbing trees, as they all descended from tree-dwellers. This arboreal heritage of primates has resulted in hands and feet that are adapted for
Order Primates is divided into two groups: prosimians and anthropoids.
Evolution of Primates
The first primate-like mammals are referred to as proto-primates. They were roughly similar to squirrels and tree shrews in size and appearance. The existing fossil evidence (mostly from North Africa) is very fragmented. These proto-primates remain largely mysterious creatures until more fossil evidence becomes available. The oldest known primate-like mammals with a relatively robust fossil record is
The first true primates were found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa in the Eocene Epoch. These early primates resembled present-day prosimians such as lemurs. Evolutionary changes continued in these early primates, with larger brains and eyes, and smaller muzzles being the trend. By the end of the Eocene Epoch, many of the early prosimian species went extinct due either to cooler temperatures or competition from the first monkeys.
Anthropoid monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene Epoch. By 40 million years ago, evidence indicates that monkeys were present in the New World (South America) and the Old World (Africa and Asia). New World monkeys are also called
Apes evolved from the catarrhines in Africa midway through the Cenozoic, approximately 25 million years ago. Apes are generally larger than monkeys and they do not possess a tail. All apes are capable of moving through trees, although many species spend most their time on the ground. Apes are more intelligent than monkeys, and they have relatively larger brains proportionate to body size. The apes are divided into two groups. The lesser apes comprise the family
The family Hominidae of order Primates includes the
Very Early Hominins
Three species of very early hominids have made news in the past few years. The oldest of these, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, has been dated to nearly 7 million years ago. There is a single specimen of this genus, a skull that was a surface find in Chad. The fossil, informally called “Toumai,” is a mosaic of primitive and evolved characteristics, and it is unclear how this fossil fits with the picture given by molecular data, namely that the line leading to modern humans and modern chimpanzees apparently bifurcated about 6 million years ago. It is not thought at this time that this species was an ancestor of modern humans.
A second, younger species, Orrorin tugenensis, is also a relatively recent discovery, found in 2000. There are several specimens of Orrorin. It is not known whether Orrorin was a human ancestor, but this possibility has not been ruled out. Some features of Orrorin are more similar to those of modern humans than are the australopiths, although Orrorin is much older.
A third genus, Ardipithecus, was discovered in the 1990s, and the scientists who discovered the first fossil found that some other scientists did not believe the organism to be a biped (thus, it would not be considered a hominid). In the intervening years, several more specimens of Ardipithecus, classified as two different species, demonstrated that the organism was bipedal. Again, the status of this genus as a human ancestor is uncertain.
Early Hominins: Genus Australopithecus
There were a number of Australopithecus species, which are often referred to as australopiths. Australopithecus anamensis lived about 4.2 million years ago. More is known about another early species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. This species demonstrates a trend in human evolution: the reduction of the dentition and jaw in size. A. afarensis (Figure 4) had smaller canines and molars compared to apes, but these were larger than those of modern humans. Its brain size was 380–450 cubic centimeters, approximately the size of a modern chimpanzee brain. It also had
Australopithecus africanus lived between 2 and 3 million years ago. It had a slender build and was bipedal, but had robust arm bones and, like other early hominids, may have spent significant time in trees. Its brain was larger than that of A. afarensis at 500 cubic centimeters, which is slightly less than one-third the size of modern human brains. Two other species, Australopithecus bahrelghazali and Australopithecus garhi, have been added to the roster of australopiths in recent years.
A Dead End: Genus Paranthropus
The australopiths had a relatively slender build and teeth that were suited for soft food. In the past several years, fossils of hominids of a different body type have been found and dated to approximately 2.5 million years ago. These hominids, of the genus Paranthropus, were relatively large and had large grinding teeth. Their molars showed heavy wear, suggesting that they had a coarse and fibrous vegetarian diet as opposed to the partially carnivorous diet of the australopiths. Paranthropus includes Paranthropus robustus of South Africa, and Paranthropus aethiopicus and Paranthropus boisei of East Africa. The hominids in this genus went extinct more than 1 million years ago and are not thought to be ancestral to modern humans, but rather members of an evolutionary branch on the hominin tree that left no descendants.
Early Hominins: Genus Homo
The human genus, Homo, first appeared between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. For many years, fossils of a species called H. habilis were the oldest examples in the genus Homo, but in 2010, a new species called Homo gautengensis was discovered and may be older. Compared to A. africanus, H. habilis had a number of features more similar to modern humans. H. habilis had a jaw that was less prognathic than the australopiths and a larger brain, at 600–750 cubic centimeters. However, H. habilis retained some features of older hominin species, such as long arms. The name H. habilis means “handy man,” which is a reference to the stone tools that have been found with its remains.
Link to Learning
Visit this site for a video about Smithsonian paleontologist Briana Pobiner explaining the link between hominin eating of meat and evolutionary trends.
H. erectus appeared approximately 1.8 million years ago (Figure 6). It is believed to have originated in East Africa and was the first hominin species to migrate out of Africa. Fossils of H. erectus have been found in India, China, Java, and Europe, and were known in the past as “Java Man” or “Peking Man.” H. erectus had a number of features that were more similar to modern humans than those of H. habilis. H. erectus was larger in size than earlier hominins, reaching heights up to 1.85 meters and weighing up to 65 kilograms, which are sizes similar to those of modern humans. Its degree of sexual dimorphism was less than earlier species, with males being 20 to 30 percent larger than females, which is close to the size difference seen in our species. H. erectus had a larger brain than earlier species at 775–1,100 cubic centimeters, which compares to the 1,130–1,260 cubic centimeters seen in modern human brains. H. erectus also had a nose with downward-facing nostrils similar to modern humans, rather than the forward facing nostrils found in other primates. Longer, downward-facing nostrils allow for the warming of cold air before it enters the lungs and may have been an adaptation to colder climates. Artifacts found with fossils of H. erectus suggest that it was the first hominin to use fire, hunt, and have a home base. H. erectus is generally thought to have lived until about 50,000 years ago.
Humans: Homo sapiens
A number of species, sometimes called archaic Homo sapiens, apparently evolved from H. erectus starting about 500,000 years ago. These species include Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. These archaic H. sapiens had a brain size similar to that of modern humans, averaging 1,200–1,400 cubic centimeters. They differed from modern humans by having a thick skull, a prominent brow ridge, and a receding chin. Some of these species survived until 30,000–10,000 years ago, overlapping with modern humans (Figure 7).
There is considerable debate about the origins of anatomically modern humans or
This evolutionary timeline is supported by molecular evidence. One approach to studying the origins of modern humans is to examine mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from populations around the world. Because a fetus develops from an egg containing its mother’s mitochondria (which have their own, non-nuclear DNA), mtDNA is passed entirely through the maternal line. Mutations in mtDNA can now be used to estimate the timeline of genetic divergence. The resulting evidence suggests that all modern humans have mtDNA inherited from a common ancestor that lived in Africa about 160,000 years ago. Another approach to the molecular understanding of human evolution is to examine the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son. This evidence suggests that all men today inherited a Y chromosome from a male that lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago.
All primate species possess adaptations for climbing trees, as they all probably descended from tree-dwellers, although not all species are arboreal. Other characteristics of primates are brains that are larger than those of other mammals, claws that have been modified into flattened nails, typically only one young per pregnancy, stereoscopic vision, and a trend toward holding the body upright. Primates are divided into two groups: prosimians and anthropoids. Monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene Epoch. Apes evolved from catarrhines in Africa during the Miocene Epoch. Apes are divided into the lesser apes and the greater apes. Hominins include those groups that gave rise to our species, such as Australopithecus and H. erectus, and those groups that can be considered “cousins” of humans, such as Neanderthals. Fossil evidence shows that hominins at the time of Australopithecus were walking upright, the first evidence of bipedal hominins. A number of species, sometimes called archaic H. sapiens, evolved from H. erectus approximately 500,000 years ago. There is considerable debate about the origins of anatomically modern humans or H. sapiens sapiens.
Which of the following is not an anthropoid?
Which of the following is part of a clade believed to have died out, leaving no descendants?
How did archaic Homo sapiens differ from anatomically modern humans?
Archaic Homo sapiens differed from modern humans by having a thick skull and a prominent brow ridge, and lacking a prominent chin.
Why is it so difficult to determine the sequence of hominin ancestors that have led to modern Homo sapiens?
The immediate ancestors of humans were Australopithecus. All people past and present, along with the australopithecines, are hominins. We share the adaptation of being habitually bipedal. The earliest australopithecines very likely did not evolve until 5 million years ago. The primate fossil record for this crucial transitional period leading to australopithecines is still sketchy and somewhat confusing. By about 2.5 million years ago, there were at least two evolutionary lines of hominins descended from early australopithecines.
Homo sapiens sapiens