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Artistic reconstruction of Archicebus achilles in its natural habitat of trees. (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Tiny, Ancient Tree-Dweller Was One Of Earth’s Earliest Primates

Christopher Joyce June 5, 2013 

The origin of the first primates — the group that includes humans, apes and monkeys — is thought to lie in the deep past, about 55 million years ago.

Fossils from that period are rare. But now, there’s an exciting new one. It’s called Archicebus achilles, roughly meaning “beginning long-tailed monkey.” Actually, this creature lived before the monkeys we know of today, a mere 10 million years after the dinosaurs died out.

But A. achilles had some primitive features we associate with monkeys and the rest of the primates. For example, it had big eye sockets that were forward-facing and angled in a way that meant the animal had good stereo vision. It also had nails instead of claws, indicative of grasping digits. Many of its traits would have been helpful for living in trees and, perhaps, capturing insects.

“It’s a fossil that shows a combination of features that we’ve simply never seen before in any living or fossil primate,” says Christopher Beard, a paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Pittsburgh, who worked on the team that analyzed it.

The fossil was discovered years ago by a farmer in China. Alive, A. achilles weighed an ounce and would fit in the palm of your hand. The scientific team spent several years studying it before publishing their findings in the journal Nature this week.

The skeleton’s completeness, and its great age, are extraordinary. A. achilles lived at a special time in evolution. The first primates were emerging and over time, they would evolve and diverge into numerous body types and behaviors. Some became monkeys; some, lemurs; and others, creatures called tarsiers. And some would eventually evolve into us — Homo sapiens.

Beard says the lineage A. achilles was on may not have been the same one humans came from. “But in any case, the take-home picture should be that here is a fossil that is very, very close to that evolutionary divergence,” Beard concludes. And apparently, that divergence happened in Asia.

The scientists say A. achilles may be the earliest primate skeleton ever found. Duke University anthropologist Richard Kay says that’s possible, but the fossil record in this case is murky. Some other primate fossils might qualify, he says, although they are very fragmentary and the dates are very close together, clustered around 55 million years ago. In any case, A. achilles was certainly close kin to the first primate and could help answer some crucial questions, Kay and Beard agree.

“Why did this group of animals get really well-developed vision?” Kay asks. “Why did they get rid of perfectly good claws and start to have nails on their fingers, and a lot of other characteristics? They beg an answer as to, why did this change occur?”

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Earliest musical instruments in Europe 40,000 years ago

The first modern humans in Europe were playing musical instruments and showing artistic creativity as early as 40,000 years ago, according to new research from Oxford and Tübingen universities.

The researchers have obtained important new radiocarbon dates for bones found in the same archaeological layers as a variety of musical instruments. The instruments take the form of flutes made from the bird bones and mammoth ivory. They were excavated at a key site in Germany, which is widely believed to have been occupied by some of first modern humans to arrive in Europe.

In a paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the researchers describe the new dating results for animal bones, excavated in the same archaeological layers as the instruments and early art, at Geißenklösterle Cave in the Swabian Jura of southern Germany. The animal bones bear cuts and marks from human hunting and eating.

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