The birthplace of the human race is Asia – our earliest ancestors came to Asia in a huge migration 37-38 million years ago, before they evolved into present-day apes and humans.
A team of palaeontologists in Myanmar has found the tooth of a pre-human ancestor – afrasia djijidae, so-called because it forms a missing link between Africa and Asia – that is very similar another early ancestor found in Libya.
Four similar teeth were found after six years of sifting through sediment – a find that helps seal Asia as the starting point for our species.
‘Not only does Afrasia help seal the case that anthropoids first evolved in Asia, it also tells us when our anthropoid ancestors first made their way to Africa, where they continued to evolve into apes and humans,’ says Chris Beard, Carnegie Museum of Natural History palaontologist.
He worked with an international team that included scientists from the University of Poitiers.
‘Afrasia is a game-changer because for the first time it signals when our distant ancestors initially colonized Africa. If this ancient migration had never taken place, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.’
Paleontologists have been divided over exactly how and when early Asian anthropoids made their way from Asia to Africa.
The trip could not have been easy, because a more extensive version of the modern Mediterranean Sea called the Tethys Sea separated Africa from Eurasia at that time. While the discovery of Afrasia does not solve the exact route early anthropoids followed in reaching Africa, it does suggest that the colonization event occurred relatively recently, only shortly before the first anthropoid fossils are found in the African fossil record.
Myanmar’s 37-million-year-old Afrasia is remarkable in that its teeth closely resemble those of Afrotarsius libycus, a North African primate dating to about the same time.
The four known teeth of Afrasia were recovered after six years of sifting through tons of sediment near Nyaungpinle in central Myanmar.
Details of tooth shape in the Asian Afrasia and the North African Afrotarsius fossils indicate that these animals probably ate insects.
The size of their teeth suggests that in life these animals weighed around 3.5 ounces, roughly the size of a modern tarsier.
‘For years we thought the African fossil record was simply bad,’ says Professor Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the University of Poitiers in France, the team leader and a Carnegie Museum research associate. ‘The fact that such similar anthropoids lived at the same time in Myanmar and Libya suggests that the gap in early African anthropoid evolution is actually real. Anthropoids didn’t arrive in Africa until right before we find their fossils in Libya.’
The search for the origin of early anthropoids—and, by extension, early human ancestors—is a focal point of modern paleoanthropology.
The discovery of Afrasia shows that one lineage of early anthropoids colonized Africa around 37–38 million years ago, but the diversity of early anthropoids known from the Libyan site that produced Afrotarsius libycus hints that the true picture was more complicated.
These other Libyan fossil anthropoids may be the descendants of one or more additional Asian colonists, because they don’t appear to be specially related to Afrasia and Afrotarsius. Fossil evidence of evolutionary divergence—when a species divides to create new lineages—is critical data for researchers in evolution.
The groundbreaking discovery of the relationship between Asia’s Afrasia and North Africa’s Afrotarsius is an important benchmark for pinpointing the date at which Asian anthropoids colonized Africa.
- An Asian Origin for Human Ancestors? – Ann Gibbons – Science (richarddawkins.net)
- Fossil discovery sheds new light on evolutionary history of higher primates (esciencenews.com)
- A New Primate Species From Myanmar Points To “Out Of Asia” (primatology.net)
- Did the Earliest Human Relatives Originate in Asia and Not Africa? (usapartisan.com)
- New Primate Fossil Points to ‘Out of Asia’ Theory (purestrange.wordpress.com)
- Our ancestors may have originated in Asia, not Africa [Evolution] (io9.com)
- Meet the ancestors – 3D Fossil Exploration in a Virtual Laboratory (rcd.typepad.com)
- Chinese Fossils May Be Evidence of Early Ancestors of Humans (usnews.com)