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THIS WEEK


8 | NewScientist | 8 June 2013


  • ”Archie” suggests primates evolved in Asia–


At 55 million years old, this primate
skeleton is the closest we’ve come to
discovering our origins

Humanity’s


earliest cousin


Colin Barras

OUR distant ancestors evolved not
in Africa but Asia, in a hothouse
world newly free of dinosaurs.
Over 55 million years ago, in the
lush rainforests of what is now
east Asia, a new voice was heard in
the animal chorus: the cry of the
first primate.
A fossil unveiled this week
might give us an idea of what this
crucial ancestor looked like. It is
the earliest primate skeleton ever
found. It also strongly suggests
that our lineage evolved in Asia,
several million years earlier

than we thought, and links the
evolution of primates to the most
extreme episode of climate
change of the last 65 million years.
“For the first time we can shine
a light on this critical part of the
[evolutionary] tree and say what
did these animals look like?” says
Christopher Beard at the Carnegie
Museum of Natural History in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The
find, says Erik Seiffert of Stony
Brook University in New York,
who was not involved in the study,
is “undoubtedly one of the most
important discoveries in the
history of palaeoprimatology”.
Beard and his colleagues found
Archicebus achilles in eastern
China, just south of the Yangtze
river (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/
nature12200). It is 55 million years
old, has the relatively small eyes
of an animal active during the day
and the sharp molar teeth of an
insect-eater. Significantly, it also
has the hindlimbs and flexible
foot of a primate that had already
taken to leaping between branches
and gripping onto them with its
feet – characteristics that we only
lost when our ancestors left the
trees just a few million years ago.
In fact, a recent study revealed
that at least 1 in 13 of us still has a
flexible foot (New Scientist, 1 June,

“Archicebus is undoubtedly
one of the most important
discoveries in the history
of palaeoprimatology”

Paul Taffor

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