Scientists debate meaning of 40-million-year-old primate fossils in Nature

CHICAGO--Fossils recently discovered in Egypt fill one of the gaps in the evolutionary tree of primates and double the known age of one of its main branches. Because there are still so many gaps in the tree, statistical calculations push the origin of primates, including the earliest ancestors of humans, back to about 90 million years ago at least 20 million years earlier than previously thought.

Analyses of DNA sequences confirm this early date and indicate that, contrary to a widespread assumption, primates did not originate in Africa. The new fossil evidence supports a novel proposal that lemurs, lorises and bushbabies, which comprise a sister group to higher primates, might have originated in Indo-Madagascar rather than in Africa.

So says Robert D. Martin, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at The Field Museum in Chicago, and author of a commentary about a paper by Seiffert and colleagues that describes the new primate fossils. Both the paper and the commentary will be published in the March 27 issue of Nature.

Martin calls the fossils "spectacular," but disagrees with the researchers' own interpretations. "It's great how in one fell swoop, the researchers have doubled the known age of lorises and bushbabies," he says. "Unfortunately, however, they are still trying to squeeze their findings into a traditional model of primate evolution that is based on an insufficient fossil record, which leads to a serious underestimation of divergence times for the entire group."

Consisting of teeth and jaw fragments, the fossils were found in the Fayum Depression on the eastern edge of the Sahara Desert in Egypt, the best site for early African fossil mammals. They represent Saharagalago (a bushbaby) and Karanisia (a loris), adding two new genera to only four that were previously known for bushbabies and lorises. The well-preserved teeth date from about 40 million years ago, twice as old as the already known fossils for these tw

Contact: Greg Borzo
Field Museum

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