Remains of a newly found primate, Afrasia djijidae, show this monkey-like animal lived 37 million years ago and was a likely ancestor of anthropoids — the group including humans, apes and monkeys.
“Many people have heard about the ‘Out of Africa’ story of human origins and human evolution,” said Christopher Beard, a Carnegie Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist who co-authored a study about the fossil find in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Our paper is the logical precursor to that, because we are showing how the anthropoid ancestors of humans made their way ‘Into Africa’ in the first place.”
He added, “We would not be here talking about this subject, or any other subject, if these early Asian anthropoids had not made that fateful voyage to Africa.”
Beard, project leader Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers, and their colleagues analyzed the tooth remains of Afrasia. They found that it is very similar to, but more primitive than, another early anthropoid, Afrotarsius libycus, recently discovered at a site of similar age in the Sahara Desert of Libya. (The term “anthropoid” is used instead of “primate” because all anthropoids are primates, but not all primates are anthropoids. Lemurs, for example, fall into that latter group.)
The tooth size of Afrasia and Afrotarsius indicates that in life, both animals only weighed around 3.5 ounces. They likely fed mostly on insects and probably resembled small monkeys, Beard said. Although quite similar, the fossils differ in that Afrasia is more closely tied to the world’s oldest known anthropoid, Eosimias, which lived between 40-45 million years ago in China. It remains a mystery as to how the small Asian animals came to Africa.
“What we do know is that they had to cross a much larger version of the Mediterranean Sea (the ancient body of water was called the Tethys Sea) in order to go from Asia to Africa,” Beard said. “At that time, Africa was an island continent like Australia is today.”