London: An international team of scientists have said that anthropoids—the primate group that includes humans, apes, and monkeys—"colonized" Africa, rather than originally evolving in Africa.
The team discovered fossils found at the Dur At-Talah escarpment in central Libya, which includes three distinct families of anthropoid primates that lived in North Africa at approximately the same time.
This suggests that anthropoids underwent diversification, through evolution, previous to the time of these newly discovered fossils, which date to 39 million years ago.
This then raises two possibilities - a striking gap in the African fossil record prior to this period, which is unlikely as Northern Africa’s Eocene sites have been well sampled over the past century, and no diversity of anthropoid fossils has yet been discovered that predates the new Libyan specimens or the second, more likely possibility - that several anthropoid species "colonized" Africa from another continent 39 million years ago—the middle of the Eocene epoch.
"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," said Christopher Beard, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
"At the time, Africa was an island continent; when these anthropoids appeared, there was nothing on that island that could compete with them. 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," he added.
"This sudden appearance of such diversity suggests that these anthropoids probably colonized 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 study is published in Nature.