It’s well-established through genetics that Homo sapiens arose in Africa, but it was also thought that all of our pre-human primate ancestors also came from Africa. But a 38 million year old tooth in Myanmar may show that our very early primate ancestors started out in east Asia, making their way to Africa later.
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.
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