Myanmar Fossil Discovery Supports Asia Was Where Earliest Anthropoids Evolved
Africa has usually been thought of as the root for anthropoid evolution. A new fossil discovery in Myanmar, however, adds weight to the theory that evolution began elsewhere.
The 37-million year old "Afrasia djijidae" resembles another anthropoid found in the Sahara Desert in Libya dating back to around the same time. Similar discoveries in China show that anthropoids probably came from Asia,
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Anthropoids include primates, monkeys, and humans.
"Not only does Afrasia help seal the case that anthropoids first evolved in Asia, it also tells us when our anthropoid ancestors first made their way to Africa, where they continued to evolve into apes and humans," said Chris Beard, Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist and member of the team of scientists that unearthed the fossil.
"Afrasia is a game-changer because for the first time it signals when our distant ancestors initially colonized Africa. If this ancient migration had never taken place, we wouldn't be here talking about it."
The route to Africa and Eurasia was blocked by the larger Tethys Sea, and the difficulty for anthropoids to cross it has left scientists baffled over the exact route this colonization took. Still, the discovery of Afrasia, a species similar to the Libyan anthropoid, helps scientists narrow in on a range of dates.
"For years we thought the African fossil record was simply bad," said Professor Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers in France, the team leader and a Carnegie Museum research associate. "The fact that such similar anthropoids lived at the same time in Myanmar and Libya suggests that the gap in early African anthropoid evolution is actually real. Anthropoids didn't arrive in Africa until right before we find their fossils in Libya."
By using the teeth of both species, scientists determined that Afrasia and its African counterpart probably weighed 3.5 ounces and ate tiny insects.
The Libyan fossils, some of the earliest showing an anthropoid presence in Africa around 37-38 million years ago, show that the anthropoids came from one or more Asian colonists. For scientists, the point where evolutionary divergance occurs is important in mapping out the branches of the evolutionary tree.
"Reconstructing events like the colonization of Africa by early anthropoids is a lot like solving a very cold case file," said Beard. "Afrasia may not be the anthropoid who actually committed the act, but it is definitely on our short list of prime suspects."