Who knew that a miniature primate who was hanging out in China tens of millions of years ago could be such a big deal for the scientific community?
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Chinese paleontologists discovered bones of an ounce-sized primate–the earliest fossil in such good condition ever found. At 55 million years old, the bones of this ancestor to the tarsier primates that roam the forest of Southeast Asia are 8 million years older than any other previously discovered primate fossils.
Beyond its age and size, the finding is important for a few other reasons. According to the Times:
The finding adds weight to the evidence that primates originated in Asia — not Africa — and that they emerged relatively soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs, which happened about 66 million years ago.
The older date brings scientists closer to pinpointing a pivotal event in primate and human evolution: the divergence between the lineage leading to anthropoids — which include modern monkeys, apes and humans — and the one leading to tarsiers.
Oddly enough, a farmer working land alongside the Yangtze river in Hubei Province, China discovered the bones a full decade ago. But it took that many years of analysis for scientists to classify the fossils with confidence.
According to one paleontologist who co-authored the announcement of the findings in a paper in Nature, the skeleton “‘differs radically from any other primate, living or fossil, known to science. … It looks like an odd hybrid, with the feet of a small monkey, the arms, legs and teeth of a very primitive primate and a primitive skull bearing surprisingly small eyes.'”
The fossil is likely to change the game for researches attempting to answer questions related to the divergence of primates from humans and the crossing of primates into Africa from Asia tens of millions of years ago.