Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8.3: The Emergence of Modern Primate Groups

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

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Origins of Crown Strepsirrhines

    Until the turn of this century, very little was known about the origins of the crown (living) strepsirrhines. The Quaternary record of Madagascar contains many amazing forms of lemurs, including giant sloth-like lemurs, lemurs with perhaps monkey-like habits, lemurs with koala-like habits, and even a giant aye-aye (Godfrey and Jungers 2002). However, in Madagascar, early Tertiary continental sediments are lacking, and there is no record of lemur fossils before the Pleistocene.

    The fossil record of galagos is slightly more informative. Namely, there are Miocene African fossils that are very likely progenitors of lorisids (Simpson 1967). However, these are much like modern galagos and do not reveal anything about the relationship between crown strepsirrhines and Eocene fossil primates (but see below regarding Propotto). A similar situation exists for lorises in Asia: there are Miocene representatives, but these are substantially like modern lorises. The discovery of the first definite toothcomb canine (a hallmark of stresirrhines) in 2003 provided the “smoking gun” for the origin of crown strepsirrhines (Seiffert et al. 2003). Recently, several other African primates have been recognized as having strepsirrhine affinities (Marivaux et al. 2013; Seiffert 2012). The enigmatic Fayum primate Plesiopithecus is known from a skull that has been compared to aye-ayes and to lorises (Godinot 2006; Simons and Rasmussen 1994a).

    The now-recognized diversity of stem strepsirrhines from the Eocene and Oligocene of Afro-Arabia is strong evidence to suggest that strepsirrhines originated in that geographic area. This implies that lorises dispersed to Asia subsequent to an African origin. It is unknown what the first strepsirrhines in Madagascar were like. However, it seems likely that the lemuriform-lorisiform split occurred in continental Africa, followed by dispersal of lemuriform stock to Madagascar. Recent evidence suggests that Propotto, a Miocene primate from Kenya originally described as a potto antecedent, actually forms a clade with Plesiopithecus and the aye-aye; this might suggest that strepsirrhines dispersed to Madagascar from continental Africa more than once (Gunnell et al. 2018).

    The Fossil Record of Tarsiers

    Tarsiers are so unusual that they fuel major debates about primate taxonomy. Tarsiers today are moderately diverse but geographically limited and not very different in their ecological habits—especially considering that the split between them and their nearest living relative probably occurred over 50 million years ago. If omomyoids are excluded, then the fossil record of tarsiers is very limited. Two fossil species from the Miocene of Thailand have been placed in the genus Tarsius, as has an Eocene fossil from China (Beard et al. 1994). These, and Xanthorhysis from the Eocene of China, are all very tarsier-like. In fact, it is striking that Tarsius eocaenus from China was already so tarsier-like as early as the Eocene. This suggests that tarsiers achieved their current morphology very early in their evolution and have remained more or less the same while other primates changed dramatically. Two additional genera, Afrotarsius from the Oligocene of Egypt and Libya and Afrasia from the Eocene of Myanmar, have also been implicated in tarsier origins, though the relationship between them and tarsiers is unclear (Chaimanee et al. 2012). More recently, a partial skeleton of a small Eocene primate from China, Archicebus achilles (dated to approximately 55.8 million to 54.8 million years ago), was described as the most basal tarsiiform (Ni et al. 2013). This primate is reconstructed as a diurnal insectivore and an arboreal quadruped that did some leaping—but not to the specialized degree seen in living tarsiers. The anatomy of the eye in living tarsiers suggests that their lineage passed through a diurnal stage, so Archicebus (and diurnal omomyoids) might represent such a stage.

    Climate Change and the Paleogeography of Modern Primate Origins

    Changing global climate has had profound effects on primate dispersal patterns and ecological habits over evolutionary time. Primates today are strongly tied to patches of trees and particular plant parts such as fruits, seeds, and immature leaves. It is no surprise, then, that the distribution of primates mirrors the distribution of forests. Today, primates are most diverse in the tropics, especially in tropical rainforests. Global temperature trends across the Tertiary have affected primate ranges. Following the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, cooler temperatures and greater seasonality characterized the Paleocene. In the Eocene, temperatures (and probably rainfall) increased globally and rainforests likely extended to very high latitudes. During this time, euprimates became diverse. With cooling and increased aridity at the end of the Eocene, many primate extinctions occurred in the northern continents and the surviving primates were confined to lower latitudes in South America, Afro-Arabia, Asia, and southern Europe. Among these survivors are the progenitors of the living groups of primates: lemurs and lorises, tarsiers, platyrrhines (monkeys of the Americas), and catarrhines (monkeys and apes of Africa and Asia) (Figure 8.12).

    Map of world with gray continents.
    Figure 8.12: Map of key localities of early anthropoids on land that becomes Africa and southern Asia. Credit: Oligocene Map with Key Early Anthropoid Localities (Figure 8.10) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Elyssa Ebding at GeoPlace, California State University, Chico is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Localities based on Fleagle 2013, 265.

    Competing Hypotheses for the Origin of Anthropoids

    There is considerable debate among paleoanthropologists as to the geographic origins of anthropoids. In addition, there is debate regarding the source group for anthropoids. Three different hypotheses have been articulated in the literature. These are the adapoid origin hypothesis, the omomyoid origin hypothesis, and the tarsier origin hypothesis (Figure 8.13).

    Diagrams show three relationships among primate groups.
    Figure 8.13: Competing models of anthropoid origins. Branch lengths are not to scale. The omomyoid origin model and tarsier origin model do not make specific reference to the evolutionary position of strepsirrhines; however, they were included here for completeness. Credit: Competing Trees for Anthropoid Origins (Figure 8.11) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. [Image Description].

    Adapoid Origin Hypothesis

    Resemblances between some adapoids and some extant anthropoids include fusion of the mandibular symphysis, overall robusticity of the chewing system, overall large body size, features that signal a diurnal lifestyle (like relatively small eye sockets), and ankle bone morphology. Another feature in common is canine sexual dimorphism, which is present in some species of adapoids (probably) and in several species of anthropoids.

    These features led some paleoanthropologists in the last half of the 20th century to suggest that anthropoids came from adapoid stock (Gingerich 1980; Simons and Rasmussen 1994b). One of the earliest supporters of the link between adapoids and anthropoids was Hans Georg Stehlin, who described much of the best material of adapoids and compared these Eocene primates to South American monkeys (Stehlin 1912). In more recent times, the adapoid origin hypothesis was reinforced by resemblances between these European adapoids (especially Adapis and Leptadapis) and some early anthropoids from the Fayum Basin (e.g., Aegyptopithecus, see below; Figure 8.14).

    Figure 8.14: Families of early anthropoids with example genera and traits: a table. Credit: Early anthropoids table original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology (2nd ed.) by Jonathan M. G. Perry and Stephanie L. Canington is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Content derived from Fleagle 2013.
    Family Genera Morphology Location Age1
    Propliopithecidae2 Aegyptopithecus Large size. Cranial sexual dimorphism, large canines. Robust jaws and rounded molars. Partially ossified ear tube (in some). Robust skeleton; quadruped. Africa Late Eocene to Early Oligocene
    Parapithecidae3 Apidium Medium size. Retention of three premolars per quadrant. Rounded molars and premolars with large central cusps. Adaptations for leaping in the lower limb. Africa Late Eocene to Late Oligocene
    Proteopithecidae4 Proteopithecus Small size. Retention of three premolars per quadrant. Arboreal quadrupeds that ate fruit. Africa Late Eocene
    Oligopithecidae5 Catopithecus Small size. Skull has postorbital septum and unfused mandible. Deep jaws. Diet of fruits. Generalized quadruped. Africa Late Eocene
    Eosimiidae Eosimias Deep jaw with vertical unfused symphysis. Pointed incisors and canines. Crowded premolars. Asia Middle Eocene
    Amphipithecidae6 Pondaungia Deep jaws. Molars generally rounded with wide basins. Asia Middle Eocene to Early Oligocene

    1 Derived from Fleagle 2013.

    2 See Gebo and Simons 1987 and Simons et al. 2007.

    3 See Feagle and Simons 1995 and Simons 2001.

    4 See Simons and Seiffert 1999.

    5 See Simons and Rasmussen 1996.

    6 See Kay et al. 2004.


    Unfortunately for the adapoid hypothesis, most of the shared features listed above probably emerged independently in the two groups as adaptations to a diet of hard and/or tough foods. For example, fusion of the mandibular symphysis likely evolved as a means to strengthen the jaw against forces that would pull the two halves away from each other, in the context of active chewing muscles on both sides of the head generating great bite forces. This context would also favor the development of robust jaws, large chewing muscles, shorter faces, and some other features shared by some adapoids and some anthropoids.

    As older and more plesiomorphic anthropoids were found in the Fayum Basin, it became clear that the earliest anthropoids from Africa did not possess these features of jaw robusticity (Seiffert et al. 2009). Furthermore, many adapoids never evolved these features. Fusion of the mandibular symphysis in adapoids is actually quite different from that in anthropoids and probably occurred during juvenile development in the former (Beecher 1983; Ravosa 1996). Eventually, the adapoid origin hypothesis fell out of favor among most paleoanthropologists, although the description of Darwinius is a recent revival of that idea (Franzen et al. 2009; but see Seiffert et al. 2009, Williams et al. 2010b).

    Omomyoid Origin Hypothesis

    Similarities in cranial and hindlimb morphology between some omomyoids and extant tarsiers have led to the suggestion that tarsiers arose from some kind of omomyoid. In particular, Necrolemur has many features in common with tarsiers, as does the North American Shoshonius, which is known from a few beautifully preserved (although distorted) crania. Tarsiers and Shoshonius share exclusively some features of the base of the cranium; however, Shoshonius does not have any sign of postorbital closure, and it lacks the bony ear tube of tarsiers. Nevertheless, some of the resemblances between some omomyoids and tarsiers suggest that tarsiers might have originated from within the Omomyoidea (Beard 2002; Beard and MacPhee 1994). In this scenario, although living tarsiers and living anthropoids might be sister taxa, they might have evolved from different omomyoids, possibly separated from each other by more than 50 million years of evolution, or from anthropoids evolved from some non-omomyoid fossil group. The arguments against the omomyoid origin hypothesis are essentially the arguments for the tarsier origin hypothesis (see below). Namely, tarsiers and anthropoids share many features (especially of the soft tissues) that must have been retained for many millions of years or must have evolved convergently in the two groups. Furthermore, a key hard-tissue feature shared between the two extant groups, the postorbital septum, was not present in any omomyoid. Therefore, that feature must have arisen convergently in the two extant groups or must have been lost in omomyoids. Neither scenario is very appealing, although recent arguments for convergent evolution of the postorbital septum in tarsiers and anthropoids have arisen from embryology and histology of the structure (DeLeon et al. 2016).

    Tarsier Origin Hypothesis

    Several paleoanthropologists have suggested that there is a relationship between tarsiers and anthropoids to the exclusion of omomyoids and adapoids (e.g., Cartmill and Kay 1978; Ross 2000; Williams and Kay 1995). Tarsiers and anthropoids today share several traits, including many soft-tissue features related to the olfactory system (e.g., the loss of a hairless external nose and loss of the median cleft running from the nose to the mouth, as possessed by strepsirrhines), and aspects of the visual system (e.g., the loss of a reflective layer at the back of the eye, similarities in carotid circulation to the brain, and mode of placentation). Unfortunately, none of these can be assessed directly in fossils. Some bony similarities between tarsiers and anthropoids include an extra air-filled chamber below the middle ear cavity, reduced bones within the nasal cavity, and substantial postorbital closure; these can be assessed in fossils, but the distribution of these traits in omomyoids does not yield clear answers. Furthermore, several similarities between tarsiers and anthropoids are probably due to similarities in sensory systems, which might have evolved in parallel for ecological reasons. Although early attempts to resolve the crown primates with molecular data were sometimes equivocal or in disagreement with one another, more recent analyses (including those of short interspersed elements) suggest that tarsiers and anthropoids are sister groups to the exclusion of lemurs and lorises (Williams et al. 2010a). However, this does not address omomyoids, all of which are far too ancient for DNA extraction.

    The above three hypotheses are not the only possibilities for anthropoid origins. It may be that anthropoids are neither the closest sister group of tarsiers, nor evolved from adapoids or omomyoids. In recent years, two new groups of Eocene Asian primates have been implicated in the origin of anthropoids: the eosimiids and the amphipithecids. It is possible that one or the other of these two groups gave rise to anthropoids. Regardless of the true configuration of the tree for crown primates, the three major extant groups probably diverged from each other quite long ago (Seiffert et al. 2004).

    Early Anthropoid Fossils in Africa

    People digging in a sandy desert.
    Figure 8.15: Egyptian workers sweeping Quarry I in the Fayum Basin (2004). This technique, called wind harvesting, removes the desert crust and permits wind to blow out fine sediment and reveal fossils. Credit: Egyptian workers sweeping Quarry I in the Fayum Basin (2004, Figure 8.12) by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
    A person using a tool to expose bone in sand.
    Figure 8.16: Elwyn Laverne Simons excavating Aegyptopithecus in the Fayum Basin. Credit: Elwyn Laverne Simons in the Fayum Basin (Figure 8.13) used by permission of the Duke Lemur Center, Division of Fossil Primates, is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    The classic localities yielding the greatest wealth of early anthropoid fossils are those from the Fayum Basin in Egypt (Simons 2008; Figure 8.15). The Fayum is a veritable oasis of fossil primates in an otherwise spotty early Tertiary African record. Since the 1960s, teams led by E. L. Simons have discovered several new species of early anthropoids, some of which are known from many parts of the skeleton and several individuals (Figure 8.16).

    The Fayum Jebel Qatrani Formation and Birket Qarun Formation between them have yielded a remarkable array of terrestrial, arboreal, and aquatic mammals. These include ungulates, bats, sea cows, elephants, hyraces, rodents, whales, and primates. Also, many other vertebrates, like water birds, were present. The area at the time of deposition (Late Eocene through Early Oligocene) was probably very wet, with slow-moving rivers, standing water, swampy conditions, and lots of trees (see Bown and Kraus 1988). In short, it was an excellent place for primates.

    General Morphology of Anthropoids

    The anthropoids known from the Fayum (and their close relatives from elsewhere in East Africa and Afro-Arabia) bear many of the anatomical hallmarks of extant anthropoids; however, there are plesiomorphic forms in several families that lack one or more anthropoid traits. All Fayum anthropoids known from skulls possess postorbital closure, most had fused mandibular symphyses, and most had ring-like ectotympanic bones. Tooth formulae were generally either or Fayum anthropoids ranged in size from the very small Qatrania and Biretia (less than 500 g) to the much-larger Aegyptopithecus (approximately 7 kg; 15 lbs.). Fruit was probably the main component of the diet for most or all of the anthropoids, with some of them supplementing with leaves (Kay and Simons 1980; Kirk and Simons 2001; Teaford et al. 1996). Most Fayum anthropoids were probably diurnal above-branch quadrupeds. Some of them (e.g., Apidium; see Figure 8.14) were probably very good leapers (Gebo and Simons 1987), but none show specializations for gibbon-style suspensory locomotion. Some of the Fayum anthropoids are known from hundreds of individuals, permitting the assessment of individual variation, sexual dimorphism, and in some cases growth and development. The description that follows provides greater detail for the two best known Fayum anthropoid families, the Propliopithecidae and the Parapithecidae; the additional families are summarized briefly.

    Fayum Anthropoid Families

    The Propliopithecidae (see Figure 8.14) include the largest anthropoids from the fauna, and they are known from several crania and some postcranial elements. They have been suggested to be stem catarrhines, although perhaps near the split between catarrhines and platyrrhines. The best known propliopithecid is Aegyptopithecus, known from many teeth, crania, and postcranial elements (Figure 8.17) .

    Two animal skull side views.
    Figure 8.17: Female (left) and male (right) skull material for Aegyptopithecus zeuxis. The mandibles are not associated with the crania. Credit: Female and male cranium of A. zeuxi (03129Fig5, Supporting Information) by Elwyn L. Simons, Erik R. Seiffert, Timothy M. Ryan, and Yousry Attia. 2007. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (21): 8731–8736. Copyright (2007) National Academy of Sciences. Image is used for non-commercial and educational purposes as outlined by PNAS.

    Parapithecidae are an extremely abundant and unusual family of anthropoids from the Fayum. The parapithecid Apidium is known from many jaws with teeth, crushed and distorted crania, and several skeletal elements. Parapithecus is known from cranial material including a beautiful, undistorted cranium. This genus shows extreme reduction of the incisors, including complete absence of the lower incisors in P. grangeri (Simons 2001). This trait is unique among primates. Parapithecids were once thought to be the ancestral stock of platyrrhines; however, their platyrrhine-like features are probably ancestral retentions, so the most conservative approach is to consider them stem anthropoids.

    The Proteopithecidae were small frugivores that probably mainly walked along horizontal branches on all fours. TThey are considered stem anthropoids. The best known genus, Proteopithecus, is represented by dentitions, crania, and postcranial elements.

    The Oligopithecidae share a mixture of traits that makes them difficult to classify more specifically within anthropoids. The best known member, Catopithecus, is known from crania that demonstrate a postorbital septum and from mandibles that lack symphyseal fusion. They share the catarrhine tooth formula of and have a canine honing complex that involves the anterior lower premolar. The postcranial elements known for the group suggest generalized arboreal quadrupedalism. The best known member, Catopithecus, is known from crania that demonstrate a postorbital septum and from mandibles that lack symphyseal fusion (Simons and Rasmussen 1996). The jaws are deep, with broad muscle attachment areas and crested teeth. Catopithecus was probably a little less than a kilogram in weight.

    Other genera of putative anthropoids from the Fayum include the very poorly known Arsinoea, the contentious Afrotarsius, and the enigmatic Nosmips. The last of these possesses traits of several major primate clades and defies classification (Seiffert et al. 2010).

    Early Anthropoid Fossils in Asia

    For the last half of the 1900s, researchers believed that Africa was the unquestioned homeland of early anthropoids (see Fleagle and Kay 1994). However, two very different groups of primates from Asia soon began to change that. One was an entirely new discovery (Eosimiidae), and the other was a poorly known group discovered decades prior (Amphipithecidae). Soon, attention on anthropoid origins began to shift eastward (see Ross and Kay 2004; Simons 2004). If anthropoids arose in Asia instead of Africa, then this implies that the African early anthropoids either emigrated from Asia or evolved their anthropoid traits in parallel with living anthropoids.


    First described in the 1990s, the eosimiids are best represented by Eosimias (see Figure 8.14; Figure 8.18). This tiny “dawn monkey” is known from relatively complete jaws with teeth, a few small fragments of the face, and some postcranial elements (Beard et al. 1994; Beard et al. 1996; Gebo et al. 2000). Eosimias (along with the other less-well-known genera in its family) bears some resemblance to tarsiers as well as anthropoids. Unfortunately, no good crania are known for this family, and the anatomy of, for example, the posterior orbital margin could be very revealing as to higher-level relationships.

    Red-colored lower jaw of an animal.
    Figure 8.18: Cast of the right half of the mandible of Eosimias centennicus, type specimen. The white scale bar is 1 cm long. Credit: Cast of the right half of the mandible of Eosimias centennicus (Figure 8.15), type specimen, from K. D. Rose cast collection, photo by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.


    Amphipithecids are small- to medium-size primates (up to 10 kg; 22 lbs.). Most are from the Eocene Pondaung Formation in Myanmar (Early–Middle Eocene), but one genus is known from Thailand. Some dental similarities with anthropoids were noted early on, such as deep jaws and wide basins that separate low molar cusps. The best known genera were Pondaungia and Amphipithecus (Ciochon and Gunnell 2002; see Figure 8.14). Another amphipithecid, Siamopithecus from Thailand, has very rounded molars and was probably a seed-eater (Figure 8.19). In addition to teeth and jaws, some cranial fragments, ankle material, and ends of postcranial bones have been found for Pondaungia. There are important resemblances between the postcranial bones of Pondaungia and those of adapoids, suggesting adapoid affinities for the amphipithecidae. This would imply that the resemblances with anthropoids in the teeth are convergent, based on similarities in diet (see Ciochon and Gunnell 2002). Unfortunately, the association between postcranial bones and teeth is not definite. With other primates in these faunas (including eosimiids), one cannot be certain that the postcranial bones belong with the teeth. Some researchers suggest that some bones belong to a sivaladapid (or asiadapid) and others to an early anthropoid (Beard et al. 2007; Marivaux et al. 2003). Additional well-associated material of amphipithecids would help to clear up this uncertainty.

    Four casts of jawbone fragments with teeth.
    Figure 8.19: Casts of representative amphipithecid material. A. Pondaungia cotteri right lower jaw fragment with m2 and m3. B. Siamopithecus eocaenus right upper jaw fragment with p4-m3. C. S. eocaenus right lower jaw fragment with partial m1, m2, and m3 in lateral view. D. Same as in C but occlusal view. White scale bars are 1 cm long. Credit: Casts of representative amphipithecid material (Figure 8.16)l from K. D. Rose cast collection, photo by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Platyrrhine Dispersal to South America

    Today there is an impressive diversity of primates in South and Central America. These are considered to be part of a single clade, the Platyrrhini. Primates colonized South America sometime in the Eocene from an African source. In the first half of the 20th century, the source of platyrrhines was a matter of major debate among paleontologists, with some favoring a North American origin (e.g., Simpson 1940).

    Part of the reason for this debate is that South America was an island in the Eocene. Primates needed to cross open ocean to get there from either North America or Africa, although the distance from the former was shorter. Morphology yields clues to platyrrhine origins. The first known primates in South America have more in common morphologically with African primates than with North American ones. At the time, anthropoids were popping up in North Africa, whereas the only euprimates in North America were adapoids and omomyoids. Despite lacking a bony ear tube, early platyrrhines shared a great deal with other anthropoids, including full postorbital closure and fusion of the mandibular symphysis.

    The means by which a population of small North African primates managed to disperse across the Atlantic and survive to colonize South America remains a mystery. The most plausible scenario is one of rafting. That is, primates must have been trapped on vegetation that was blown out to sea by a storm. The vegetation then became a sort of life raft, which eventually landed ashore, dumping its passengers in South America. Rodents probably arrived in South America in the same way (Antoine et al. 2012).

    Once ashore, platyrrhines must have crossed South America fairly rapidly because the earliest-known primates from that continent are from Peru (Bond et al. 2015). Soon after that, platyrrhines were in Bolivia, namely Branisella. By the Miocene, platyrrhines were living in extreme southern Argentina and were exploiting a variety of feeding niches. The Early Miocene platyrrhines were all somewhat plesiomorphic in their morphology, but some features that likely arose by ecological convergence suggest (to some) relationships with extant platyrrhine families. This has led to a lively debate about the pattern of primate evolution in South America (Kay 2015; Kay and Fleagle 2010; Rosenberger 2010). By the Middle Miocene, clear representatives of modern families were present in a diverse fauna from La Venta, Colombia (Wheeler 2010). The Plio-Pleistocene saw the emergence of giant platyrrhines as well as several taxa of platyrrhines living on Caribbean islands (Cooke et al. 2016).

    The story of platyrrhines seems to be one of amazing sweepstakes dispersal, followed by rapid diversification and widespread geographic colonization of much of South America. After that, dramatic extinctions resulted in the current, much-smaller geographic distribution of platyrrhines. These extinctions were probably caused by changing climates, leading to the contraction of forests. Platyrrhines dispersed to the Caribbean and to Central America, with subsequent extinctions in those regions that might have been related to interactions with humans. Unlike anthropoids of Africa and Asia, platyrrhines do not seem to have evolved any primarily terrestrial forms and so have always been highly dependent on forests.

    Special Topic: Jonathan Perry and Primates of the Extreme South

    Many primates are very vulnerable to ecological disturbance because they are heavily dependent on fruit to eat and trees to live in. This is one reason why so many primates are endangered today and why many of them went extinct due to climatic and vegetational changes in the past. I (Jonathan Perry) have conducted paleontological research focusing on primates that lived on the edge of their geographic distribution. This research has taken me to extreme environments in the Americas: southern Patagonia, the Canadian prairies, western Wyoming, and the badlands of eastern Oregon.

    Santa Cruz Province in Argentina is as far south as primates have ever lived. The Santa Cruz fauna of the Miocene has yielded a moderate diversity of platyrrhines, each with slightly different dietary adaptations. These include Homunculus, first described by Florentino Ameghino in 1891 (Figure 8.20). Recent fieldwork by my colleagues and I in Argentina has revealed several skulls of Homunculus as well as many parts of the skeleton (Kay et al. 2012). The emerging profile of this extinct primate is one of a dedicated arboreal quadruped that fed on fruits and leaves. Many of the foods eaten by Homunculus must have been very tough and were probably covered and impregnated with grit; we suspect this because the cheek teeth are very worn down, even in young individuals, and because the molar tooth roots were very large, presumably to resist strong bite forces (Perry et al. 2010, 2014).

    An animal skull, a partial skull, and a fossil jaw with teeth.
    Figure 8.20: Representative specimens of Homunculus patagonicus. A. Adult cranium in lateral view. B. Adult cranium surface reconstructed from microCT scans, with the teeth segmented out. C. Juvenile cranium. White scale bars are 1cm long. Credit: Representative specimens of Homunculus patagonicus (Figure 8.17) photo by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    I began working in Argentina while a graduate student at Duke University. I participated as a field assistant in a team led by my Ph.D. advisor, Richard F. Kay, and Argentine colleagues Sergio F. Vizcaíno and M. Susana Bargo. Most of the localities examined belong to a suite of beach sites known since the 1800s and visited by many field parties from various museums in the early 1900s. Since 2003, our international team of paleontologists from the U.S. and Argentina has visited these localities every single year (Figure 8.21). Over time, new fossils and new students have led to new projects and new approaches, including the use of microcomputed tomography (microCT) to visualize and analyze internal structures of the skeleton.

    Sandy rocky coastline. People digging on a grassy hillside.
    Figure 8.21: Field localities in Argentina and Canada. A. Cañadon Palos locality, coastal Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. B. Swift Current Creek locality, southwest Saskatchewan, Canada. Credits: A. Cañadon Palos Field Locality in Argentina by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. B. Swift Current Creek locality, Saskatchewan, Canada by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    This page titled 8.3: The Emergence of Modern Primate Groups 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.