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Can You See the Family Resemblance? Earliest Primate Fossil on Record Discovered

Can You See the Family Resemblance? Earliest Primate Fossil on Record Discovered

Weighing no more than 30 grams and spanning no more than 7 cm in length, it may be hard to understand why the fossilized remains of Archicebus achilles have the scientific world so excited but, as this is the oldest primate fossil on record, it most definitely is big news.

Archicebus – which means “ancient monkey,” but is a mouthful so from here on we’ll go with New Scientist’s delightful nickname, Archie — was actually found about a decade ago as a wonderfully well preserved skeleton but, because of the rigor required in reconstructing and analyzing the find, details hadn’t been published until now.

The Archie fossil was discovered in a quarry in central China’s Hubei Province. While the region’s current climate would be labeled subtropical, in Archie’s time, 55 million years ago, the area would have been a tropical wilderness.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that Archie appears to have been a tree-dweller that would have used a leap-and-grasp motion as it traveled its lush habitat.

The fossil indicates Archie had pointed teeth and likely got by on a diet of insects. The fossil’s large eye sockets present us with a creature that most likely had good vision for hunting in the day.

The fossil, about the size of a mouse, is 55 million years old, which makes it the oldest primate fossil on record. This carries a few heady facts with it.

Chiefly, this makes Archie the ancestor of all modern tarsiers, monkeys, apes and, indeed, humans. To understand exactly Archie’s place in the evolutionary tree, scientists have, quite helpfully, come up with the following image:

Archie, and scientists know this by virtue of its physiology, is not the last common ancestor shared by the above species, however it offers us a tantalizing glimpse at the divergence of monkeys, apes and humans from tarsiers — a pivotal point in our own history.

For one thing, Archie’s size suggests that our ancestors were also also small and adapted for tropical canopies. This serves to add weight to the revision of previous thought that primates at this time were already relatively large.

It also adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests early and major steps in primate evolution took place in Asia, rather than Africa.

This means that, at some point, Archie’s descendants diverged, one branch going on to evolve into tarsiers and the other the anthropoids (which would in time include humans). Anthropoids then made the journey to Africa where, eventually, humans evolved.

Dr. Chris Beard from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, U.S., tells the BBC tells another reason why Archie is so remarkable:

“The heel, and the foot in general, was one of the most shocking parts of the anatomy of this fossil when we first saw it; because, frankly, the foot of this fossil primate looks like a small monkey, specifically like a marmoset.

“What it means is that the common ancestor of tarsiers and anthropoids had some features that looked more like anthropoids than tarsiers. And I guess we shouldn’t be so surprised by this.”

This remarkable discovery, and its place in the rich and one would think undeniable tapestry of evidence for evolution, unfortunately will not serve to deter the ongoing creep of creationism or so-called Intelligent Design that is infecting many U.S. classrooms.

Most recently, an Ohio school district has advanced classes on what is essentially creationism under the “teach the controversy” falsehood, as though to give the wholly unproven imaginings of creationists equal weight to the falsifiable yet countless robust pieces of evidence underpinning evolutionary theory.

Louisiana’s state legislature also recently killed a repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act. Good, you might say, except the Act allows for supplementary materials that offer so-called “critiques” of evolution to also be given to children. This conveys the false notion that there are any such reputable critiques.

It also allows for some quite interesting notions, for instance that people gazed upon living dinosaurs (but never the feathered kind) and that dragons were in fact real.

To be clear, while Archie does not immediately unlock our evolutionary past in all its glory, this discovery does give humankind the profound gift of seeing — actually seeing — another piece of our own history, something that creationism can never really do.

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Image credit: Artist impression of Archicebus achilles by Xijun Ni, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Illustration of an evolutionary tree by Mark A Klingler/Carnegie Museum

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49 comments

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2:49PM PDT on Aug 1, 2013

awesome article. thanks for sharing

8:41AM PDT on Jul 17, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

4:47PM PDT on Jun 15, 2013

...Sorry, just a clarification...vaccines act by exposing your own immune system to viral invaders. Vaccines expose you to a killed virus and ramp up your defenses, so it puts down a viral invasion more effectively. Viruses, such as the flu that have many different and changing strains will require a strain-specific exposure to vaccinate. A given strain can mutate and require revaccination for the newer version of the same strain to create immunity. Bacteria are affected directly by an antibiotic in conjunction with your own immune system, but they do not produce any immunity.

4:38PM PDT on Jun 15, 2013

...is bacteria and viruses. They go through myriad generations in a human life span , so their changes are readily observable. This is why the have to reformulate the flu vaccine yearly. As a given strain is vaccinated against, other strains resistant to the vaccine will come to be more common and proliferate more, then you have an outbreak of THAT strain ; you vaccinate against it an the first strain's survivors which have an adaptation that makes them resistant to the vaccine that kept their brethren from finding a host and proliferating now dominate. So you develop a vaccine that gets around that adaptation and they pass from prevalence. With bacteria, the fundamentals are the same, but the mechanisms by which antibiotics function as opposed to vaccines makes an even more problematic situation. Antibiotics act like a cataclysmic environmental event. They wipe out all but the strongest and they become the new seed population. This is why we are seeing antibiotic resistant bacteria.We are accelerating the die off of less adaptive bacteria in their overall population and the superbugs achieve dominance faster than they might otherwise. Remember, your body is their environment.

4:25PM PDT on Jun 15, 2013

" Why are there still apes...?"...the question itself shows poor understanding of evolutionary theory and genetics. Apes didn't become humans. No creature 'evolves". Evolution is the term for a PROCESS that takes place over scores and scores of generations . The environment itself always undergoes change. The plants and animals that adapt to those changes best tend to survive longer and pass their genes on more commonly. An adaptation can arise from an already existing genetic trait that makes it's carriers more suitable to some radical change in the environment,or over time more suitable to gradual changes, or a genetic anomaly may prove to function adaptively.Over generations, these adaptations become prevalent in the gene pool of a given creature. None the less, the less well adapted brethren of these do live, reproduce and do their species specific thing, they just become less and less representative of their species as the better adapted ones come to dominate in the gene pool. Extinction of course is a possibility if a certain adaptive threshold can't be met. But even extinction takes place relatively slowly. Even relatively fast extinction, such as the Great Die Offs still took thousands of years. Humans and apes had a common ancestor. The human genetic make up differs from that of a chimp by just a little under 2%. So relatively small variances can make for very significant differences. One of the most readily observable examples of natural selection is in bacteri

10:21AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

I believe strongly in evolution, especially since among records of proof, it's common sense. We and other species all evolved. If a creationist brings this up to me, I ask them how do they know evolution wasn't God's method of creating? Now, there's food for thought. Meanwhile, I feel that God is Universal Life Energy. Energy runs the universe and everything in it.

However, somewhere along the way the human sector certainly went awry.

7:42AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

I used to believe in evolution and was not sure GOD existed. When I began to think GOD might exist I began to question evolutionary theory. A few years ago I read the National Geographic special issue on Darwinism. the Magazine stated it is proved. But when you start out to prove what you already have decided is true. That does not leave room for other points of view. Imagine a detective saying I know this man is guilty then working to find only that evidence that proves it. The Magazine mentioned that as much as 80% of the puzzle is missing. That there are huge complex changes that seem to happen in a short time ( still a hundred thousand years is considered short). Two or more evolutionary paths that are need to survive by species just seem to work out. Bees and Flowers for example.

Many Christians have adopted Intelligent Design which has many good points about assumptions and leaps of faith on the evolutionist side. For instance they just found the eye is more complicated then they thought for now it has a new part necessary for us to see.

I have decided to accept Creationism as my understanding. Everyone should be free to accept what they wish. I do not think anything but evolution should be taught in schools. But textbooks and teachers are told not to discuss the problems with evolution. Which is to me is wrong.

12:52AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

Thanks for this article.

11:59PM PDT on Jun 13, 2013

ty

10:08PM PDT on Jun 13, 2013

WE were at first a deviation from the norm. Thats what evolution is all about. OUR deviating and becoming a branch of the whole doesn't mean we replace what we deviated from.

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