The ancestors of monkey and man came from Asia

Fossil Fund in Myanmar shows migration of primates from Asia to Africa

Locations and illustration of the teeth of the newly discovered primate Afrasia djijidae in Myanmar and the closely related African primate Afrotarsius libycus; bottom left the reconstruction of Afrasia. © Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Map: Ron Blakey
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The ancestors of all monkeys and humans once came from Asia to Africa. A new evidence of this primeval immigration paleontologists have discovered in Myanmar. There they encountered the fossil teeth of Afrasia djijidae, a previously unknown primate that lived about 37 million years ago. Further analysis revealed that the small insectivore was closely related to a primate occurring in Africa at the same time - even though they lived thousands of miles apart. The ancestors of the African species were therefore probably recently immigrated from Asia, the researchers report in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences". The new find sheds new light on a crucial phase in the evolution of primates - their arrival in Africa.

"Afrasia djijidae is a milestone as this fossil shows us for the first time when our distant ancestors came to Africa, " says Christopher Beard, co-discoverer of the fossil and paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History at Pittsburgh. It was only on the African continent that these early primates continued to develop into pre-human beings and ultimately into the first representatives of Homo sapiens. "If this primeval immigration had not existed, we would not be here either, " says Beard. The researchers had discovered the four teeth of Afrasia djijidae in excavations near the place Nyaungpinle in central Myanmar.

Excavations in central Myanmar, here the teeth of the primate Afrasia djijidae were found. © Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Enigmatic gap in the fossil finds

For a long time it was thought that the common ancestors of monkeys and humans, also called anthropoid primates, originated in Africa. But recent fossil finds in China and Southeast Asia contradict this. The fossils there are older than the first African representatives of this primate group. At first, however, it was unclear whether the African primates immigrated later, or whether the fossils from the time 37 million years ago in Africa simply not been preserved.

"For years, we thought that the African fossil situation was simply bad, " says study leader Jean-Jacques Jaeger from the Universit de Poitiers in France. Only the two closely related primates from Myanmar and Libya showed that this gap in the African fossil history reflects the reality: "Anthropoid primates simply did not exist in Africa before, " says Jaeger.

Primates had to overcome Tethys Sea

However, the journey of our distant ancestors from Asia to their new home was anything but easy. For at that time, about 40 million years ago, Africa and Eurasia were separated by the Tethys Sea. In the conquest of Africa, the anthropoid primates had to cross this inlet, as the researchers explain. The exact route and also the exact time of this hike can not be determined on the basis of the available finds yet. For this you need more evidence. "The reconstruction of events like this is similar to trying to solve a very old criminal case, " says Beard. (doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1200644109) Display

(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 05.06.2012 - NPO)