Out of Asia? Ancient ancestor of modern man walked Sahara 39million years ago
By David Derbyshire Daily Mail
Last updated at 8:35 AM on 28th October 2010
The human family tree may have to be rewritten after scientists found evidence that the ancient ancestors of humans, apes and monkeys evolved in Asia - rather than Africa - tens of millions of years ago.
The astonishing claim follows the discovery of four species of early primate
in the Sahara desert, dating back 39 million years.
The creatures - or anthropoid primates - are unlike anything seen before in Africa from the same time period or before, suggesting that they evolved elsewhere.
Scientists say there is overwhelming fossil evidence that mankind evolved from
ape-like creatures in Africa, two to three million years ago.
The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived five to seven million years ago, while we split off from the gorilla branch of the family tree around 10 million years ago.
Many researchers have believe that the common ancestors of all apes, monkeys
and humans also evolved in Africa.
But the new finding challenges that view.
'If our ideas are correct, this early colonization of Africa by anthropoids
was a truly pivotal event—one of the key points in our evolutionary history,'
says Dr Christopher Beard, of Carnegie Museum of Natural History and an author
on the paper in today’s Nature journal.
At the time, Africa was an island continent. When these anthropoids appeared, there was nothing on that island that could compete with them, he said. 'It led to a period of flourishing evolutionary divergence amongst anthropoids, and one of those lineages resulted in humans. If our early anthropoid ancestors had not succeeded in migrating from Asia to Africa, we simply wouldn’t exist.'
Although the researchers found only fossilised teeth at the Dur At-Talah escarpment - part of the unspoilt, remote Sahara in central Libya - they have a rough idea of their size and shape.
The four creatures were small, weighing between four and 16 ounces, and resembled
monkeys or lemurs.
Three of the creatures came from distinct families, or 'clades', of primates - showing that they had been evolving from a common ancestor for a long time.
The researchers say there is no evidence of similar primates from Africa before
39 million years ago.
So either there is a “striking gap” in the fossil record of North Africa - despite more than 100 years of fossil hunting expeditions in the region - or the early primates came from elsewhere, said Dr Beard.
“This extraordinary new fossil site in Libya shows us that 39 million years ago there was a surprising diversity of anthropoids living in Africa, whereas few if any anthropoids are known from Africa before this time,” he said.
“This sudden appearance of such diversity suggests that these anthropoids probably colonised Africa from somewhere else. Without earlier fossil evidence in Africa, we’re currently looking to Asia as the place where these animals first evolved.”
The human family tree gets more complicated with every new fossil discovery.
Scientists now believe the first human like ancestors or hominids appeared around two to three million years ago.
The first homo sapiens appeared around 400,000 years ago, while modern humans emerged in the last 100,000 years.
The latest thinking is that modern humans evolved in Africa and left to colonise the world around 50,000 to 1000 years ago.
There they met the descendants of previous migrants who had left Africa much earlier - including the Neanderthals of Europe.