Myanmar fossil may shed light on evolution

BANGKOK, Thailand — Fossils recently discovered in Myanmar could prove that the common ancestors of humans, monkeys and apes — known as anthropoids — evolved from primates in Asia, rather than Africa, researchers contend in a study released today.

The 38 million-year-old pieces of jawbones and teeth are part of a growing body of evidence that is helping scientists to understand the origin of primates, said Dr. Chris Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and a member of the team who found the fossils near Bagan in central Myanmar in 2005.

“When we found it, we knew we had a new type of primate and basically what kind of primate it was,” Beard said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh. “It turns out that jaws and teeth are very diagnostic. … They are almost like fingerprints for fossils like this.”

The findings were published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B, a London-based peer-reviewed journal.

Other scientists not involved in the study said that the findings were significant but that they would not end the debate over the origin of anthropoid (highly developed) primates.

Beard and his team from France, Thailand and Myanmar concluded that the fossils — which they dubbed Ganlea megacanina — came from 10 to 15 individuals of a new species that belonged to an extinct family of Asian anthropoid primates known on Amphipithecidae. Wear and tear found on the canine teeth suggest the tree-dwelling, monkey-like creatures with long tails used their teeth to crack open tropical fruit to get to the pulp and seeds — behavior similar to modern South American saki monkeys that inhabit the Amazon basin.

“Not only does Ganlea look like an anthropoid, but it was acting like an anthropoid 38 million years ago by having this feeding ecology that was quite specialized,” Beard said.

His team determined that the fossil was 38 million years old, making it several million years older than any anthropoid found in Africa and the second-oldest discovered in Asia.

In 1994, Beard and his Chinese colleagues found fossilized foot bones of the anthropoid Eosimias — one of the world’s smallest primates — which lived between 40 million and 45 million years ago and roamed ancient rain forest on the eastern coast of China.

Beard said the age of both fossils was the evidence he needed to challenge contentions that anthropoid primates had evolved in Africa, where Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old fossil, was discovered in 1974.

“This new fossil Ganlea definitely helps us argue — and we think the argument is pretty close to settled now — that when you go back this far in time, the common ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans was definitely in Asia, not in Africa,” Beard said.

In May, researchers unveiled a nearly intact skeleton of a 47 million-year-old primate, found in Germany and dubbed “Ida,” that they said provides a glimpse into how our distant ancestors may have looked.

Jorn Hurum, who brought Ida to the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, that it was too early to draw conclusions from the Myanmar fossils because only jawbones and teeth were found.

“These fragments are still too few and far between,” Hurum said. “This is the kind of scientific debate that will continue until more complete skeletons like Ida has been found, and this may take several hundred years.”

Professor Colin Groves, a primate expert from the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology &Anthropology argued it was wrong to rule out Africa altogether because of the dearth of good dig sites on the continent from that period.

“There are no sites of comparable age in Africa … so we just can’t tell what the real locus of anthropoid evolution at this time was,” Groves told the Associated Press in an e-mail. “It could still have been Africa (but) most likely these proto-anthropoids were widespread throughout the old world tropics.”

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