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5.1: Studying Primates in Biological Anthropology

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    • Stephanie Etting

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    Primates are one of at least twenty Orders belonging to the Class Mammalia, and probably one of the oldest. One genetic estimate puts the origin of primates at approximately 91 million years ago (mya), predating the extinction of the dinosaurs (Bininda-Emonds et al. 2007). Today, the Order Primates is a diverse group of animals that includes lemurs and lorises, tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and humans, all of which are united in sharing a suite of anatomical, behavioral, and life history characteristics. While nonhuman primates are fascinating animals in their own right, their close relationship to humans makes them ideal for studying humans via homology, looking at traits that are shared between taxa because they inherited the trait from a common ancestor. For example, humans (genus Homo) and chimpanzees (genus Pan) both share the trait of male cooperation in hunting. This trait—along with many others that chimpanzees and humans share—is likely homologous, meaning it was probably passed down from the last common ancestor of Homo and Pan, which lived about 6–8 million years ago.

    Nonhuman primates also make excellent comparators for learning about humans via analogy. Many nonhuman primates live in environments similar to those in which our ancestors lived and therefore exhibit traits similar to what we see in humans. For example, baboons and humans both have long legs. In humans, this is because about 1.7 million years ago, our ancestors moved into savanna habitats where longer legs helped them move more efficiently over long distances. Baboons, who also live in savanna habitats, independently evolved longer arms and legs for the same reason—to be able to cover more ground, more efficiently. This means that having long legs is an analogous trait in baboons and humans: —that is, this adaptation evolved independently in the two species but for the same purpose. Using homology and analogy, our closest living relatives provide the critical context in which to understand human biology, morphology, and behavior. It is only by studying how humans compare with our primate relatives that we can fully comprehend our place in nature.

    Ways of Organizing Taxa

    You learned in Chapter 2 about Linnaeus and the hierarchical nature of taxonomic classification. Our goal in classifying taxa is to create categories that reflect clade relationships. A clade is a grouping of organisms based on relatedness that reflects a branch of the evolutionary tree. Clade relationships are determined using traits shared by groups of taxa as well as genetic similarities. An example of a clade would be a grouping that includes humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas (Figure 5.1). These taxa are in what is referred to as the African clade of hominoids (a taxonomic group you will learn about later in this chapter). The African clade grouping reflects how humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas all share a more recent ancestor with each other than any of them do with other species—that is, we are on the same branch of the evolutionary tree. We know members of the African clade are most closely related based on shared morphological traits as well as genetic similarities. Excluded from this grouping is the orangutan, which is considered a member of the Asian clade of hominoids.

    Diagram shows large-bodied hominoids grouped by grade or clade.
    Figure 5.1: Grades vs. Clades. A grade grouping of apes places orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos together based on their similar appearance and lifestyle, but excludes humans. Clade classification is based on shared derived traits and genetic evidence (both reflecting close evolutionary relationships). A clade grouping of apes places humans with gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos., whereas orangutans are separated. Credit: Grades vs. clades comparison (Figure 5.12) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Stephanie Etting is a collective work under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License. [Includes Orangutan on a tree (Unsplash) by Dawn Armfield, public domain (CC0 1.0); Gorilla Profile (17997840570) by Charlie Marshall from Bristol UK, modified (cropped), CC BY 2.0 License; Chimpanzee (14679767561) by Magnus Johansson, modified (cropped), CC BY-SA 2.0; Pointing finger (1922074) by truthseeker08, Pixabay License.]

    In contrast, grades are groupings that reflect levels of adaptation or overall similarity and not necessarily evolutionary relationships. An example of a grade would be placing orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees into a group, and excluding humans. Grouping in this way is based on the superficial similarities of the apes in being large-bodied, having lots of body hair, living in tropical forests, climbing and sleeping in trees, and so on. According to these criteria, humans seem to be unusual in that we differ in our morphology, behavior, and ecology. Separating humans from the large-bodied apes is the system that was used historically. We now know that grouping orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees and excluding humans does not accurately reflect our true evolutionary relationships. Since our goal in taxonomic classification is to organize animals to reflect their evolutionary relationships, we prefer to use clade classifications.

    Types of Traits

    When evaluating relationships between taxa, we use key traits that allow us to determine which species are most closely related to one another. Traits can be either ancestral or derived. Ancestral traits are those that a taxon has because it has inherited the trait from a distant ancestor. For example, all primates have body hair because we are mammals and all mammals share an ancestor hundreds of millions of years ago that had body hair. This trait has been passed down to all mammals from a shared ancestor, so all mammals alive today have body hair. Derived traits are those that have been more recently altered. This type of trait is most useful when we are trying to distinguish one group from another because derived traits tell us which taxa are more closely related to each other. For example, humans walk on two legs.The many adaptations that humans possess that allow us to move in this way evolved after humans split from the Genus Pan. This means that when we find fossil taxa that share derived traits for walking on two legs, we can conclude that they are likely more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees and bonobos.

    There are a couple of other important points about ancestral and derived traits that will become apparent as we discuss primate diversity. First, the terms ancestral and derived are relative terms, meaning that a trait can be either one depending on the taxa being compared. For example, in the previous paragraph, body hair was used as an example for an ancestral trait among primates. All mammals have body hair because we share a distant ancestor who had this trait. The presence of body hair therefore doesn’t allow you to distinguish whether monkeys are more closely related to apes or lemurs because they all share this trait. However, if we are comparing mammals to birds and fish, then body hair becomes a derived trait of mammals. It evolved after mammals diverged from birds and fish, and it tells us that all mammals are more closely related to each other than they are to birds or fish.The second important point is that very often when one lineage splits into two, one taxon will stay more similar to the last common ancestor in retaining more ancestral traits, whereas the other lineage will usually become more different from the last common ancestor by developing more derived traits. This will become very apparent when we discuss the two suborders of primates, Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini. When these two lineages diverged, strepsirrhines retained more ancestral traits (those present in the earliest primates) and haplorrhines developed more derived traits (became more different from ancestral primates).

    There are two other types of traits that will be relevant to our discussions here: generalized and specialized traits. Generalized traits are those characteristics that are useful for a wide range of things. Having opposable thumbs that go in a different direction than the rest of your fingers is a very useful, generalized trait. You can hold a pen, grab a branch, peel a banana, or text your friends all thanks to your opposable thumbs! Specialized traits are those that have been modified for a specific purpose. These traits may not have a wide range of uses, but they will be very efficient at their job. Hooves in horses are a good example of a specialized trait: they allow horses to run quickly on the ground on all fours. You can think of generalized traits as a Swiss Army knife, useful for a wide range of tasks but not particularly good at any one of them. That is, if you’re in a bind, then a Swiss Army knife can be very useful to cut a rope or fix a loose screw, but if you were going to build furniture or fix a kitchen sink, then you’d want specialized tools for the job. As we will see, most primate traits tend to be generalized.

    This page titled 5.1: Studying Primates in Biological Anthropology is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephanie Etting (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.