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8: Primate Evolution

  • Page ID
    • Jonathan M. G. Perry & Stephanie L. Canington

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    Learning Objectives

    • Understand the major trends in primate evolution from the origin of primates to the origin of our own species.
    • Learn about primate adaptations and how they characterize major primate groups.
    • Discuss the kinds of evidence that anthropologists use to find out how extinct primates are related to each other and to living primates.
    • Recognize how the changing geography and climate of Earth have influenced where and when primates have thrived or gone extinct.

    The first fifty million years of primate evolution was a series of adaptive radiations leading to the diversification of the earliest lemurs, monkeys, and apes. The primate story begins in the canopy and understory of conifer-dominated forests, with our small, furtive ancestors subsisting at night, beneath the notice of day-active dinosaurs.

    From the ancient plesiadapiforms (archaic primates) to the earliest groups of true primates (euprimates) (Bloch and Boyer 2002), the origin of our own order is characterized by the struggle for new food sources and microhabitats in the arboreal setting. Climate change forced major extinctions as the northern continents became increasingly dry, cold, and seasonal and as tropical rainforests gave way to deciduous forests, woodlands, and eventually grasslands. Lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers—once diverse groups containing many species—became rare, except for lemurs in Madagascar, where there were no anthropoid competitors and perhaps few predators. Meanwhile, anthropoids (monkeys and apes) likely emerged in Asia and then dispersed across parts of the northern hemisphere, Africa, and ultimately South America. The movement of continents, shifting sea levels, and changing patterns of rainfall and vegetation contributed to the developing landscape of primate biogeography, morphology, and behavior. Today’s primates provide modest reminders of the past diversity and remarkable adaptations of their extinct relatives. This chapter explores the major trends in primate evolution from the origin of the Order Primates to the beginnings of our own lineage, providing a window into these stories from our ancient past.

    This chapter is a revision from “ Chapter 8: Primate Evolution ” by Jonathan M. G. Perry and Stephanie L. Canington. In Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology, first edition , edited by Beth Shook, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, and Lara Braff, which is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 .

    This page titled 8: Primate Evolution is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jonathan M. G. Perry & Stephanie L. Canington (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.