Earliest fossil primate discovered in China

Posted on June 9, 2013


Hollywood actor Michael Douglas

This week has been a very mixed bag of stories on the science desk. It began with a story about the HPV virus (Human Papillomavirus) and Michael Douglas’ throat cancer, which he claimed he developed through oral sex.

Then came a study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists which raised the “potential but unproven risks” of chemicals on expectant mothers; to the digestive system of the humble and tiny gribble – a marine crustacean that could be the answer to producing liquid biofuels more cheaply.


Wood-eating gribbles – marine crustaceans – Photo: University of Portsmouth











With such consumer focused stories, news that the earliest primates came from Asia got lost in the ether. That and a really ridiculous embargo time on the press release. Any information released to the media after 8pm is never going to be picked up by broadcasters unless it’s a rolling news channel because it is deemed “old” the following morning.

An artist rendering of an Archicebus achilles in its natural habitat of trees. Photo: XIJUN NI/AP

The fossil discovery has forced scientist to re-value the time when primates began roaming the planet and when primate and human evolution started.

The nearly complete skeleton of this ancient primate (Archicebus achilles) was found in an ancient lake bed in Hubei Province in central China.  It has been named after the Greek God Achilles due to an odd heel bone it has.

Archicebus weighed no more than an ounce, had a tail longer than its body and was so small it would fit in the palm of your hand. It is the earliest well-preserved fossil primate ever found, dating back some 55 million years.

Dr Xijun Ni, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, China, who was one of the leading members of the research team, said: “We spent a long time with this fossil and examined a lot of other specimens so we could place it as accurately as we can.

“It will tell us a lot of stories about the origins of primates and our remote ancestors.”

Researchers say it probably ate insects and lived in the branches of the tropical forests that would have covered the area at the start of the Eocene, when mammals started to dominate the Earth. The fossil belongs to a species never seen before but scientists suggest it could the earliest known ancestor of tarsiers.

Tarsiers are small, nocturnal primates with huge eyes that live in Southeast Asian forests. This early primate was even smaller than today’s smallest primate, the pygmy mouse lemur of Madagascar.

pygmy mouse lemur of Madagascar

While scientists agree that humans first evolved in Africa, this latest fossil now suggests that was not where our part of the primate family started.

The foot region of the fossil

It has taken ten years to analyse the skeleton using advanced radiation imaging. It was originally found by a farmer in a rock near the course of the modern Yangtze River.

But even a decade on not all researchers are completely sure how to classify this latest discovery.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature.