Ancestral primate discovered

Tim Radford
Thursday January 1, 2004
The Guardian

The oldest ancestor of humankind found so far ate beetles, weighed little more than a box of matches, and lived in China 55 million years ago.
Xijun Ni of the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing and two colleagues report in Nature today that they have unearthed the partial skull and jaws of the most primitive specimen yet of the mammalian line which gave rise to modern primates - a group which includes lemurs, loris, monkeys, apes and archbishops.

The discovery throws fresh light on primate evolution. Although humans - and their nearest relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas - clearly emerged in Africa in the last 7 million years or so, the origins of the primate group have been less certain. Teeth and jaw fragments have turned up in Europe and North America, but the discovery of Teilhardina asiatica in the Hunan province of China, with an estimated age of 54.97m years, could change the story.

The first mammals coexisted with the dinosaurs more than 100m years ago but got their big chance when the dinosaurs disappeared in a cataclysmic event 65m years ago. From that point mammalian evolution became fairly rapid.

"It was once thought that primates originated in North America because that is where the earliest fossils were found initially, but we should be more open-minded," said Robert Martin of the Chicago Field Museum, writing in Nature. "We still do not know the area of origin of primate lineage that eventually led to humans, and this new find firmly brings Asia into the picture."